Saturday, April 11, 2020

Woods, Prairie, and the Puzzling “In Between”

On March 21st, after the burn, we were hungry for the warmth of the growing season. We were hungry for some green.
These two bur oaks stand amid a rich ecosystem. We know that from memory. Now it's mostly under ground.
The next photo shows how this spot looked on August 13, 2018. Beneath those blooming Woodland Sunflowers and Joe Pye Weeds are more than 100 species of shorter plants that bloomed in April through July.
After three decades of invasives control, local seed gathering and broadcast, and fire - the woodland is stable and rich.
But see that sunny area behind the oak on the right. A photo taken there on June 17, 2018 tells a very different story. It's just fifty yards away and looks colorful and rich, but in this case, the species may be temporary.
Columbine (red), Beardtongue (white), and Spiderwort (blue).
This area has not been stable. It has "intermediate light levels" - not as shady as woods and not as sunny as prairie.  We have less confidence that we know how to manage these intermediate communities. The quality species in this photo are mixed with Tall Goldenrod and Woodland Sunflower. Both of those species sometimes act "thuggish" - that is, over the years, they somehow kill off most other species.

Wild Bergamot, Joe Pye Weed, and Starry Campion flower, but Tall Goldenrod makes up most of the green ... and may be a threat to the others. 
Above is an area where the problem is more obvious. Tall Goldenrod, with its narrow pointed leaves, probably makes up 90% of the vegetation. Some such areas have become all Goldenrod for years, which is poor fuel, so our controlled burns skip it, and then Buckthorn kills off the Goldenrod, and our work starts over from the beginning.

The Illinois Native Plant Society recently funded research by Dr. Karen Glennemeier in cooperation with the Somme stewards to test some approaches. Perhaps all that's needed is more seed of species that are better adapted to such intermediate-light areas. Eriko Kojima, below, has been leading our seed gathering in recent years.
Wide-leaved Panic Grass
Can you even see the rare grass in the photo above? The thin leaves belong to Spiderwort. The grass has deep green, wide leaves and sprays of tiny purple flowers.

Most people hardly notice sedges and grasses. Botanists cherish them. Ecosystems depend on them for structure, fuel and many animals' food and habitat.

Q: Why is this woman happy? A: Because she's broadcasting rare spring seeds.
We broadcast most seed in mid summer and late fall. The spring-ripening species are the most challenging to collect. We're very happy to be doing so much better with them.
A handful of rare, costly treasure.
The spring seeds include Hepatica, Shooting Star, Wood Betony, Violets, Phloxes, and a great many Sedges. They would be very expensive to buy, and for most species, the local gene pools we most want to conserve are not available for sale. Perhaps when such species are dense, they compete better with "thugs."

Does it sound like we aren't sure what's the best management? We'll admit that that's sometimes true. That's why we need more science. But possibly to restore your confidence a bit, look at the last two photos.

The first is from April 8, 2020. The black char of fire is finally being replaced by green. And out here in full sun we're confident (as we were under the oaks) that we know what to do.
In this case we have a companion photo from the same spot on August 13, 2018.

Cowbane, Spotted Joe Pye Weed, Sweet Black-eyed Susan, and Virginia Mountain Mint.
This area was freed from dense brush a few years ago, was planted with rare local prairie seed, and is already well on the way toward quality. But what you see here are all fall-bloomers. The spring and early summer prairie species take more work and more time, but down underneath, they're slowly increasing, and we continue seeding them here.

Orchard orioles, red-headed woodpeckers, and great spangled fritillaries already thrive here, where silent, dark buckthorn once stood.
Life is good.

For scientific names and more details... 
(but, sorry, not the study, yet) ...
check out a slightly more technical version of this post.

Thanks for proofing to Kathy Garness.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Spring, such as it is ... March 20, 2020 ... Dreams?

Burned clean. Here's how it looked on March 20, "the first day of spring."
Ecologically, can we really call this "spring"?

Even more graphic, "spring" in the open grassland:
Those clumps represent thriving Dropseed and Little Bluestem plants, but today they're thriving only in their roots.

As with this deer pelvis, the sense may seem death and drear.

Yet, on south-facing slopes, there is assurance of the life to come. Here we have the first harbinger of grassland spring at Somme - the temporary purple of Prairie Betony leaves, starting to emerge and unfold.

Betony will soon be spreading green, fern-like leaves topped with yellow flower clusters. Those sprigs of green today are nodding onion that will bloom mid-summer. It's all starting.

One hundred years ago, in 1920, E. S. Millay rather insulted Spring in a "cynical" poem. We’ll get to her stirring words later in this post. I invoke Ms. Millay here at the start because these days seem to many of us to be (or not to be?) life’s most trying spring in memory. Angst roams the land. Can spring help us? 

In the woodland, spring is much more advanced. Here, as usual, the spring flora races to complete its version of 2020 before tree leaves block too much light. The green above is False Mermaid - an uncommon, conservative annual. Soon it will sprawl like mermaid hair. It will flower, set seed, and be gone before many prairie plants have even emerged from the ground. It's a part of the wow of diversity. 

Most of the burned woodland still looks like this. Soon to be a riot of color, bird-song, and butterfly flutters, it's now soaking up sun, warming, getting ready, yesterday's equinox unreflected. 

Of course, much of the woods wasn't burned this year. Above, a stream was the firebreak used to protect some of this habitat. Some animals will survive better with unburned cover - though truth to tell, they'll migrate quickly to the burned area once the vegetation emerges. 

The plants of the burned area will emerge much earlier, as sun warms the black soil weeks earlier than where cold dormancy lies under an insulating carpet of dried leaves. The burned areas will have taller grasses and more abundant wildflowers. Oak woods and prairies thrive on fire. 

Yet fire is a harsh force. Here: the way of all flesh is mirrored by the way of all plants. Old and sick trees die and burn. They make way for the new. Just not too many, and too soon, we hope.

Parts of Somme were farmed, one hundred years ago. In former corn field, trees are eager to reproduce, but they need some protection from fire when they're young. We protected five of the young oaks shown here from fire by raking grass and leaves away from their little trunks. On the ancient natural landscape, young oaks burned off and re-sprouted with every fire. They developed resistant thick bark only when chance left them unburned for a few years. For decades, we waited for some of these young oaks to develop bark thick enough to withstand and frequent fires. None did. They're burned off every few years and started over. So now, in some places, we rake around some trees, as nature seems to need that help, these days. 

Back in the woods, Cow Parsnip emerges: destined to be five or six feet tall with foot-wide flower heads - even before summer sets in. It may be our most massive example of spring flora - but today, just a toddler.

The sculptural shape here is the remains of a hickory nut. The green will soon be lush Chicago Leeks. Beautiful and delicious - but leave them alone at Somme. In some areas they've been badly depleted by poaching. All the interdependent parts of this treasure of an ecosystem are protected by preserve status.

Closely related, these are the shoots of Wild Leek - long considered just a variant of the Chicago Leek. Now they're recognized as two separate species, very distinct in many ways, at least to those of us who enjoy seeing as much of diversity as we can. (Here what's left of the hickory nuts are their husks.)

We don't see many animals yet. But a Prairie Crayfish clearly has been busy improving its burrow. Soon on rainy days we'll see crayfish walking toward ponds with their babies.

Does spring inspire you every year? It does me. Edna St.Vincent Millay resisted that inspiration in a poem:


To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily. 
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing.
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers. 

Why have I always liked that alienated poem so much? She's such a clear and keen observer. She inspires us to want more - and not to be lulled and satisfied by the superficial. 

Possibly her most famous poem is short and equally impatient:

My candle burns at both ends;
     It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends - 
     It gives a lovely light!

In these days with fear of plague - and heaps of college kids writhing in mucus on Florida beaches -  there seems to be little room for such idealistic impatience. The Earth increasingly is ecologically fragile. We abuse it, complacently, at our peril.

So, this season, for some time, I look forward with modest hope to our culture's re-examination of purposes, priorities, and possible futures. Life can be good. Ecosystems need our help, and we need them. 

Another poet, Bob Dylan, once ended a song about nuclear obliteration, “I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours.” Joining Bob’s hope with Edna’s impatience, that could be good.

Thanks for reading. It's a pleasure to share with you. Change is in the wind.

This final photo is not from Somme. But somehow it seemed right here. It show four Somme volunteers who helped out last week on a desperately-needed burn at Short Pioneer Cemetery Prairie Nature Preserve in rural Grundy County: (from left to right) Eriko Kojima, Katie Kucera, Christos Economou, and Peter Kim. We (and the new local stewards) all felt happy about it. We want to help. 

Thanks to Christos Economou for many helpful edits. 

Thanks to Bob Dylan for the "Talking World War III Blues"

As Dylan talks it, he told a doctor that he'd dreamed that after the bombs, there was no one left but him. Bob ended his song this way:

Well, the doctor interrupted me just about then
Sayin, Hey I've been havin' the same old dreams.
But mine was a little different you see:
I dreamt that the only person left after the war was me.
I didn't see you around.

Well, now time passed and now it seems
Everybody's having them dreams.
Everybody sees themselves walkin' around with no one else.
Half of the people can be part right all of the time;
Some of the people can be all right part of the time;
But all of the people can't be all right all of the time.
I think Abraham Lincoln said that.
I'll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours:
I said that.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Somme Prairie: questions and answers - maps and science

When we first saw Somme Prairie, the best parts looked like this: two acres of high quality prairie in small openings scattered within 68 acres of brush, weeds, and invasive trees.  
Can two acres of rare prairie ecosystem become seventy acres? Can hundreds of vulnerable species - that have been hovering on the edge of oblivion - recover a robust and sustainable future?

If so, how? Who is planning and doing it? This is a follow up to an earlier attempt to clarify what now - to many - has looked like a shameful mess. Back in December, this blog tried to answer some basic questions.

This post brings us up to date and provides maps and additional details. Let's start with answers from the Forest Preserve's project manager Troy Showerman to some Northbrook residents' questions.

Q. and A. 

Do you expect all the trees to be removed this winter? What if the ground isn't frozen?

I am still hopeful they will complete the project this winter. The machinery and moving the heavy logs makes it hard to work without completely tearing up the ground, which is why it has been sitting for a while with our warm winter temps. I am pushing them to get out there next week to take advantage of low temps and some snow cover. It is more than a week of work that is left, so we'll still need favorable conditions.

What’s the total cost of the whole project?

The entire grant project is approximately $150,000, half of which is being paid for by the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service. That includes the brush removal completed last winter, tree removal this winter, two years of follow up on resprouts, and the planned seed collection for this coming growing season.

How much does the contractor recoup by selling logs, chips, or whatever?

Based on how hard it is for us to get rid of woodchips, not much. The majority of the logs are collected by another company for free, and they turn them into wood pallets. The contractor doing the work will take some of the better logs to sell as firewood. The biggest cost with any tree or brush cutting project is tied up in disposing of the material. We consider it a plus if any of the wood can be reused as a by-product, even if it is just firewood and pallets. As a counterpoint, the invasive trees cut by some of our contractors are just ending up being burned on site.

Does the Fish and Wildlife grant cover the whole cost of the Somme Prairie restoration? Does your grant proposal give figures for the value of what the FPD staff contributes? and/or the volunteers?

Partially answered above, but we did not include staff or volunteers as part of our match, just cash. We did include the volunteer history and commitment to the site in our grant application (I think) as a way to show the long-term commitment to the site. This match, plus staff time, is implied but not monetized. Having the cash usually helps us procure grants instead of being reliant on "in-kind" match.

The work at Somme has a long history. Two hundred or 2,000 years ago, if you stood on a highpoint of the gently rolling Somme Prairie, you would have seen rich treeless grassland rolling to the horizon – to the south, the west, and the north. To the east, you would have seen a mile of prairie before your gaze reached scattered savanna oaks and some denser woodland on the moraine top (now Waukegan Road). Today from that same spot, to the east you see forest preserve. To the south, west, and north, you see businesses, a post office, billboards, busy roads, and homes for people. Many of those people are glad a prairie survives and can recover. 

The tallgrass prairie was the richest ecosystem in the temperate world - in that it created the richest soils for agriculture, and today those soils feed people around the world. In many Illinois counties that were entirely prairie, not a single acre survives. The survival of any prairie at Somme is something like a miracle.

Forty years ago at Somme, two acres of very high quality prairie remained, in scattered, shrinking patches - as invasive brush closed in. Prairie species need full sun. They don't survive under trees. Many animal species were already gone; large and mid-size animal species are not sustainable in a two acre habitat. All surviving prairie plants and animals back then, as you can imagine, were shivering in fear. 

The Forest Preserve staff, at that time, had no plan to rescue it. We volunteers, when we first started to help out, had to learn what to do. Our best coaches were Dr. Robert Betz of Northeastern Illinois University, the staff of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, and Forest Preserves nature center director Chuck Westcott. They all said: "cut brush and burn." In the absence of fire, brush kills every grass, flower, bird, butterfly, and nematode of the prairie. For forty years, volunteers cut shrubs and trees. We concentrated on expanding the biggest and best quality openings. We lost some. We didn’t have as many volunteers (or as much fire and seed) as we needed to make faster progress. 

By 2010, Steward Laurel Ross and the volunteers of the North Branch Restoration Project had about thirty acres of prairie under restoration. But forty acres were still under shade. Volunteers are mighty, but we are spread over many sites. Thousands of generous friends and neighbors have contributed here, from a few hours to hundreds of hours each, but we had only been able to do so much. 

Increasingly in recent years, Forest Preserve staff have focused resources on Somme. In 2014, President Preckwinkle and the Forest Preserves board approved its "Next Century Plan." By 2020, as a result, there should be no brush in Somme Prairie. This is huge.

On September 20, 2018, conservationists met to refine bird conservation elements of the plan. Shown here, from left, are Laurel Ross (volunteer steward), Dr. Doug Stotz (ornithologist, Field Museum), Becky Collings (Senior Resource Ecologist for the Forest Preserves), Debbie Antlitz (Forest Preserve ecologist), and Dr. Jim Herkert (ornithologist, Illinois Audubon Society).  See Endnote 1.

The Somme Prairie work is a model of collaboration. Forest Preserve staff, volunteers, partners, and scientists work together. What comes next in this post is a summary of the discussions the bird conservation planning group had that day. Be clear, bird conservation was just one part of the overall plan. The most important overall conservation goal for the 70-acre Somme Prairie is the restoration of a whole prairie community – as large and diverse as possible. But many people are interested in birds, and your blog writer (me, Stephen Packard) was part of that field meeting and thought you, dear reader, might be interested.

Bird Conservation Plan

Birds of the eastern grasslands, as a group, are the most threatened birds on the continent. A healthy prairie needs its birds, but Somme had shrunk too small. The basic bird-conservation objective here is a large and unbroken grassland of good structure for breeding prairie birds, especially Henslow’s sparrow, dickcissel, sedge wren, savanna sparrow and possibly meadowlark. Currently no prairie birds nest in the Somme Prairie fragment. But with increasing size and quality, breeding birds can be expected, in time. Currently, some prairie species breed at Air Station Prairie (a few miles to the south) and Willow-Sanders preserve (a few miles to the southwest).

The rare Henslow’s sparrow, if you get a good look, has a greenish head and rufous wings. It’s a high priority for conservation, declining rapidly as its habitat is the eastern tallgrass prairie. 
Grassland areas the size of Somme have significant contributions to make. There are potentially about 100 acres of quality prairie habitat here, if we remove the brush barrier that separates Somme Prairie from formerly contiguous habitat in Somme Prairie Grove east of the Metra tracks. Recent studies suggest that smaller suburban grasslands are especially good for some species. The proposed work at Somme could combine with, inform, and inspire similar work at scores of existing and potential grassland bird breeding sites in the Chicago Wilderness region.

Would we also be wise to save shrublands here? Many shrubland species are in trouble too. But the experts today decided, no. For a site of this size, a single focus on grassland bird habitat is far superior to a compromise that would attempt to restore both grassland and shrubland. Other sites (including the adjacent Somme Prairie Grove) are successful and superior for shrubland bird conservation. More importantly, shrubs (and the predators they harbor) are a major threat to grassland birds. The best strategy here is for the entire site to be restored as it was – prairie.
The photo above shows the 19 acres of brush to be removed in winter 2020. These areas have black backgrounds. The areas of brush and trees removed last year has white hatched lines. The other areas are original and recovering prairie. The darker areas are trees, brush, tall goldenrod, or other prairie-destroying invaders.  
After trees and brush have been cleared, it’s still a lot of work to eliminate such malignant invasives as crown vetch, reed-canary grass, and teasel.

But the major threat here is shrubs and trees. When just a foot or two tall, a few shrubs are not in themselves a detriment to the grassland birds. But, in two or three years, between burns, woody plants with well-developed root systems grow and shade out the grass and wildflower plant diversity that make for successful grassland bird nesting habitat. The plan treats shrubs, trees, invasive weeds, and seed planting in a step-by-step process.
The new Forest Preserve plan (above) shows Somme Prairie outlined in red. The woodlands and oak savannas to the east are Somme Prairie Grove (orange), Somme Woods (yellow and green), and Chipilly Woods (blue). 
We then crossed the Metra tracks and visited the 85-acre Somme Prairie Grove (adjacent to the east) and considered relationships between it and Somme Prairie. A coordinated plan for the two preserves makes sense. The prairie portions of these two preserves are divided from each other by the North Branch of the Chicago River (which flows unnaturally in a deep, straight ditch) as well as by the Metra right-of-way. Neither the ditch nor the tracks would impede prairie birds from using both sides as one larger grassland.
Most prairie birds populations are down more than 90% in recent years. This dickcissel could one day return to the Somme preserves. Prairie birds feed their young mostly on insects. The return of prairie birds may thus restore a more natural balance to the prairie here. 
A special feature of Somme is a continuum from quality prairie to quality savanna and shrubland to quality woodland as we go east through the 695 acres of Somme and Chipilly Woods. The restoration of such a rare continuum would benefit birds, plants, invertebrates, and the ecosystem generally.

We were entertained during our walk in Somme Prairie by a merlin (an uncommon mid-size falcon) which was being mobbed by blue jays in between bouts of the feisty merlin harassing a kestrel (a smaller falcon) and a sharp-shinned hawk. Perhaps this performance was a good omen for our bird conservation planning efforts here.


Endnote 1

The planning session on bird conservation was assembled by Becky Collings and Laurel Ross. The full roster for that field meeting included: 

Forest Preserve staff: Becky Collings and Debbie Antlitz
Bird conservation and ecology: Jim Herkert (Illinois Audubon), Doug Stotz 
and Dave Willard (Field Museum)
Stewards: Laurel Ross, Lisa Culp Musgrave, and Stephen Packard

Volunteer steward Laurel Ross has also long been a conservation leader as staff of The Nature Conservancy and the Field Museum. She is also a member of the Conservation and Policy Council that helps guide the implementing of the Forest Preserve's Next Century Plan. 

Endnote 2

Some photos that show the process.
The area behind this sign looked like "nature" to many. But to an ecologist is was invasives with little habitat or conservation value. 
The transformation of Somme Prairie started to become visible from Dundee Road on December 13th, 2018 with step one. A large "mower" chopped up the understory brush, as shown below: 

From Dundee Road, looking north, with the small brush clearing just completed. The existing prairie is that pale horizontal line behind the trees.
Photo by Forest Preserve resource project manager Troy Showerman.

This is the machine that ground up the small brush. The plan called for herbiciding brush resprouts in summer 2019 and removing the remaining trees (all invaders) the following winter.
Photo by Troy Showerman.
Above, from the Post Office parking lot, the chopped up remains of mowed brush on the left, compared to a still untreated area on the right. Following the brush and tree clearing, rare locally-collected prairie seed will be broadcast. Staff and stewards will combat new infestations of invasives. The ecosystem is temporarily in an "intensive care" stage. In the future, when the scene is all waving flowers, grasses, butterflies, and birds, people will find it hard to believe that the prairie was for a time reduced to this.

As "wide angled" a photo as we could take of high-quality Somme Prairie in 1980. How long will it take before the desired 100 acres looks like this? No one knows. It's never been done. But progress has been steady and impressive. 


Beyond those already mentioned in this post, as always, there are many more who deserve recognition. To mention a few, let’s acknowledge:

John McCarter, Wendy Paulson, Arthur Velasquez, and Eric Whitaker: co-chairs of the Next Century Conservation Plan Commission – along with the scores of people who contributed to the planning process. And forest preserve President Toni Preckwinkle who coordinated the adoption of the plan. 

Dozens of Forest Preserve staff and contractors as supervised by John McCabe who has much upgraded the professionalism of the Forest Preserve’s Resource Management Division.

Volunteers by the hundreds, including Somme Prairie co-steward Lisa Musgrave and Eileen Sutter who, with many leaders and volunteers, has headed up the seed-gathering crews of the North Branch Restoration Project.

Jeanne Muellner who took the great photos of the Henslow’s sparrow and the dickcissel at Orland Grassland, where they both thrive in restored habitat. 

Thanks for proofing and edits to this post to Becky CollingsTroy ShowermanLisa MusgraveEriko Kojima, and Kathy Garness.


For an introduction to Somme Prairie Nature Preserve, check out captions and photos of Somme Prairie from a walk in late May - and a set of very different photos and comments from July.

The social benefits and conservation vision represented by the work at Somme are well summarized in The Next Century Plan of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County  

For a summary of the Somme Prairie plan, see:

Conservation of the Chicago Region “Bird Conservation Network” birds of concern is at:

The birds of conservation concern in the Somme preserves:

Woodland birds regularly breeding in Somme Woods include red-headed woodpecker, American woodcock, and northern flicker.

Shrubland and savanna birds regularly breeding in Somme Prairie Grove include brown thrasher, willow flycatcher, field sparrow, American woodcock, northern flicker, and eastern kingbird. 

Prairie birds currently breeding in Somme Prairie include none at all, for decades. The pitiful fragments of surviving prairie were too small. Thanks to all who are helping the recovery of the plants and animals of Somme Prairie. 

Friday, December 27, 2019

Why Cut Down Trees In Somme Prairie?

This post answers six questions – that are currently being raised by concerned good people about a shockingly massive “clear cut” at Somme Prairie in Northbrook. The responses were written by Stephen Packard, who for more than three decades was Director of Science and Stewardship for Illinois Nature Conservancy and then Director of National Audubon Society programs for the Chicago Region. The questions are:

1. Is forest better than prairie? 
2. Don’t we need more trees?
3. What’s the impact of ecosystem restoration on climate change?
4. How much biodiversity should we conserve?
5. What’s the impact on wildlife?
6. Does it have to be so ugly? 

From west to east are rare prairie, oak savanna (or "Prairie Grove"), and open woodland. 

1. Is forest better than prairie? 

Not always. The health and biodiversity of the planet depend on many natural and artificial communities of plants and animals. We need them (forests, prairies, tundra, pastures, and gardens) for food, water, air, medicine, and regulating the overall planetary ecosystem. The Forest Preserve District of Cook County maintains 25,100 acres of forests, 2,300 acres of prairie, along with wetland, savanna, and other natural lands. In recent years the staff and volunteers have been working hard to maintain more and more of their higher-quality community types in good health.  

People often challenge prairie conservation on the grounds that the word “forest” means trees. Yes, that’s one meaning. But the concept of a “forest preserve” originated in England and included all nature from dunes to woodlands to treeless moors. The U.S. Forest Service and the Forest Preserve District were formed at the same time and both in their founding documents recognized grasslands as part of the nature they sought to conserve. The Forest Service to this day manages the nation’s National Grasslands. 

In “The Prairie State” less than 1/100th of 1% of the prairie survives. For biodiversity conservation, the tallgrass prairie is the most highly ranked and needy major ecosystem type in North America. Somme Prairie is one of the highest quality and best restored remnants. The Somme Prairie restoration plan received a Force of Nature Award from Chicago Wilderness in 2014. 

The original prairie at Somme is globally rare and precious. 
2. Don’t we need more trees?

Yes, especially in the era of climate change, but we don’t need them everywhere at the expense of all else. We can’t grow most vegetables or grains under trees, so we eliminate trees over large areas to feed ourselves. For biodiversity (and, for that matter, landscape and aesthetic diversity) in the forest preserves, we maintain and expand our best-quality prairies. Somme Prairie is one of the two or three largest and highest quality prairies (the classic black-soil ecosystem that created the world’s best farmland) in the original midwest tallgrass region. Its biodiversity is a globally important heritage. 

Prairie species of plants and animals have adapted over millions of years to full sun. They die under trees. They also depend on frequent fire. All of what is now the forest preserve west of the Metra tracks had been prairie for thousands of years. For most of the last hundred years, because of lack of fire, invasive species including trees degraded the prairie. Beginning in the 1970s, Forest Preserve staff and volunteers have cut brush and trees and conducted controlled burns on about half of Somme Prairie every year to restore its health. We volunteers made steady but slow progress on this prairie’s 70 acres, starting in the highest quality areas. More recently the Forest Preserves' Next Century Plan confirmed the importance of this site and helped secure funding (from the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service) to speed up the work – especially along the southern edge which needed it most. 

3. What’s the impact of ecosystem restoration on climate change?

In most situations, planting trees helps counter global warming. But not always. A number of studies have shown that a natural grassland sequesters about as much carbon as a forest. The main difference is that the carbon is sequestered underground in roots and deep, rich soil. 

In both forest and prairie, the carbon cycle is circular. Sooner or later, trees fall and rot, and the carbon returns to the air as carbon dioxide. Prairies burn every year or two, and the carbon in the dead thatch returns to the atmosphere, but most of the prairie’s carbon is in the deep soil that descends down from every square inch. It mostly stays there.

The impact of carbon from prairies and forests is very different from that in coal or petroleum. In mature prairies and forests, carbon is taken out of the air every year, and about the same amount is returned from decomposition, fire, grazing, etc. To plant prairie or trees where there were none will sequester a lot of new carbon for a while, but then it just starts recycling. In contrast, carbon from fossil fuels raises atmospheric carbon without removing any. 

The EPA has repeatedly pointed out that one of the worst landscape contributors to atmospheric carbon is lawns. Gas lawnmowers are some of the most polluting of engines, and the grass contributes very little to carbon sequestration. Lawn grass roots extend only a few inches into the soil – and are insubstantial to boot. By contrast, prairie wildflowers and grasses fill every inch of the upper soil layers with carrot-like, potato-like bulbs and corms and a wide variety of roots that extend ten or fifteen feet deep.  

4. How much biodiversity should we conserve?

The quality of life in Northbrook is gloriously uplifted by 2,850 acres of forest preserves, which nearly surround the village on the west, north, and east. 

For ecosystem health and biodiversity, the beautiful Somme preserves are among our brightest natural jewels. According to the Illinois Natural History Survey, the Somme preserves “comprise one of the finest tallgrass prairie, wetland, and savanna complexes in Illinois ... along with the 250-acre Somme Woods forest preserve to the east, the slow return to health with prescribed fire, seeding reintroductions, invasive exotic species removal in this preserve has been breathtaking to behold.” 

Most current "prairie remnants" are too small for many plant species and most animal species to survive over time. The 70 acres of quality prairie being restored at Somme are a bare minimum for many prairie birds and other animals. In Northbrook's other 2,780 acres of preserve, there are no prairies. Restoring these 70 acres has long been seen as a top priority. 
Prairie is not just grass. It's a rich habitat for many species. 

5. What’s the impact on wildlife?

Some people are concerned that deer will have nowhere to go – or that coyotes will be forced into the neighborhoods. Both degradation and restoration of ecosystems impact animal populations. 

The deer of the Somme and Chipilly forest preserves are always on the move. Deer trails show fresh hoofprints daily crossing the North Branch, the Metra tracks, and Waukegan and Dundee Roads (mostly in the wee hours). In winter, deer eat mostly the live branches of shrubs and lower limbs of trees along with unburied acorns. They’ll spend most of their time in wooded areas. In summer deer relish prairie wildflowers and leaves. 

Coyotes have returned to the Somme Preserves only in the last few decades. During these same decades they have also returned to virtually all the region's parks, cemeteries, railroad corridors, and neighborhoods. At all seasons they thrive best in natural habitats – grasslands, savannas, and woodlands. The work in Somme should have little impact on their presence in neighborhoods. 

Many rare animals depend utterly on open grassland. The long list goes from walking sticks and butterflies to the rare grassland birds. Wildlife biologists strongly supported the Somme Prairie restoration plan. All grassland birds had been forced out of Somme as the brush took over. One of the joys of the recovering ecosystem is the expectation that it will once again host nesting sedge wrens, Henslow’s sparrows, dickcissels, and possibly meadowlarks in Somme Prairie’s 70 acres. Animals of savanna and woodland will thrive as well as ever in the remaining 630 wooded acres of the Somme/Chipilly preserve complex.   

Once the prairie is restored, a longer-term aesthetic question arises. Is prairie ugly? Walt Whitman claimed that “the prairies and plains, while less stunning at first sight, last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest, and make North America’s characteristic landscape.” Many of us believe that people over time will come to cherish the rolling grassland of Somme as one of the best views in the village. Yes, our senses will have to contend with “the works of man” visible around the edges. But it will be big, special, and so different. And for those who insist on views of woods, there are miles of that stretching east.
Savanna blends into woodland at Somme. 
6. Does it have to be so ugly? 

The current work at Somme is a major construction (or “deconstruction”?) project. It would have been possible to take away the vegetation tree by tree and sweep up at the end of the day, as landscapers do for yard and parkway trees. But that approach would not have been good stewardship of the public’s funding resources. It would cost many times more.

This work was put out to bid. It was expensive. Some of the expense was saved by piling logs and chips for cost-effective removal and transportation. Some of us are inspired to see this long-awaited work underway – and look forward to the future that the current mess promises. Others will not have to look at it for very long. On the other hand, the needed vehicles cannot operate on the fragile soils unless the ground is frozen. So, during warm periods, the work stops, and we have to wait. 

Will the restoration of Somme Prairie be seen in time as a great contribution of the culture of this region? Many of us hope so.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

New Years Bonfire Begun - Save the Date

January 1, 2020 at 2:00 PM.

Now - the prep begins.

On October 4, we chose the spot, marked the buckthorn trees that will support the pile with double red ribbons, cut two invasive basswood logs for the base, and cleared enough brush to start work on Saturday's workday.

Russ, Estelle, John, and Eriko clear around the trees that will brace the pile. 
At 9:00 AM Saturday morning we planned to divide our forces in two. Our "top focus" this time of year is gathering rare seed. But a few of us would haul the base logs and start the pile.

Turnout is unpredictable - sometimes five or ten people - sometimes forty or fifty. But this day barely enough people showed up to carry those big logs, so the hunter-gatherers agreed to help with the big lug before their seed work.

Then at 3 minutes past 9:00, a miracle. Forest Preserve resource manager Steve Ochab showed up with young muscle in the form of Danny, Brandon, Aaron, and Steve 2 (Smith). 
The two big logs at the base allow us to build a raised platform for the brush pile,
which makes it easy for any animal hiding in the pile to escape when the fire is lit. 
Despite most of the regulars off scouting for rare seed, we got a ton done, thanks to two chain saws, a brush cutter, and a lot of hard lugging.
A brush-cutter allowed us to quickly dispense with dense young buckthorns - and add a lot of "flash fuels" to the pile.
In just three hours, the dense pile was tall enough that we needed a ladder and people on the top to haul up more fuel. 
We'll continue to build that tower of brush over next few Somme Woods workdays (except the pure seed-picking ones). Next example, October 19 at 9:00 AM, we'll put that ladder back up and continue skyward. You're invited to help. There's a lot of buckthorn to cut. 

As we worked, we heard and saw interesting birds, learned a few special plants. As we gathered up our tools, with some good feelings for a morning well spent, at the edge of a previous year's restored area, someone spied this treasure:
So gorgeous it seemed to glow - and yet almost invisible until you noticed it. This is the caterpillar of a hawk moth or hummingbird moth: Sphinx kalmiae. It was another reminder of the rich nature that had been being lost, but thrives once more after restoration. And what's with that blue and black tail-ish thing?

The caterpillars of this group of fast-flying moths are also called "hornworms" because of their scary-looking "stingers." They don't sting though; it's an impressive bluff. But why not leave them alone anyway. Hawk moths pollinate a lot of plants, like the prairie white-fringed orchid. They're part of the diversity that makes the world richer. 

Hey, enjoy nature. Enjoy the forest preserves. And save the date. 

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Evolved For Each Other: Bird and Flower

Like the glass slipper that fit the princess, this flower fits this bird. As you will see, in photos. 

Insect eyes don’t perceive red. Blue or yellow or white blooms are designed for them. Bugs have pollinated for more than 200 million years. Nectar-feeding hummingbirds have been in action for only 30 million. (It took a while for dinosaurs to get this small.)

Red flowers are for hummingbirds. In the photos below, the magic of hummers and plant sex is revealed. The pollen (male) of cardinal flower travels to the (female) ovaries on hummingbird heads. I can’t find any published reference to this precise adaptation, but if you doubt, look below. Each separate flower is topped by a long tubular structure that ends in gray and white reproductive organs. To appreciate the sequence of five photographs below, watch that structure in relation to the bird's head.

Yes - like the glass slipper that fit the princess, this flower fits this bird.

Lisa Culp Musgrave got these great photos at Somme - only because we restored the tiny birds' red-flower habitat. Until 2012, no hummingbirds had nested in Somme Woods for decades. Then we hacked out the invasive brush and gathered hundreds of species of rare seeds. Among those species were many that were crucial for butterflies, bees, fungi, and other interdependent species. But it was the red flowers that the hummers had waited for. 
Cardinal flowers, great blue lobelias and sweet black-eyed Susans
bloom by the hundreds where brush was cut and seeds were planted.
Adaptation: it is “costly” for a plant to develop a pollinating relationship with hummingbirds. Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is the only one of the 19 lobelia species in the eastern U.S. that has done it (other lobelias are blue). In exchange for moving pollen to ovaries, the bird requires a great deal of nectar and a specialized form of sugar, and the robust ruby-throat is pretty rough on the plant, compared to butterflies or bees. Cardinal flowers thrive in isolated wetlands; hummingbirds fly long distances to find red flowers. Perhaps that's part of why they need each other. 

Somme has six true-red, hummingbird-pollinated wildflower species, spanning the seasons. After spring's scarlet painted cup and columbine - there's prairie lily, Michigan lily, and an occasional fire pink in summer. But the crowning glory of the hummingbird year is August and September's cardinal flowers.

Hummingbird wings beat 55 times per second when hovering, 61 when slowly backing up, and at least 75 times per second when zooming forward. They have a high metabolism.

In addition to nectar, ruby-throats also eat large numbers of tiny insects and thus no doubt regulate and enrich the complexity, health and balance of the woodland ecosystem. They also perform. In an opening among the trees, the male performs dramatic U-shaped flights, something like a skateboarder on one of those U-shaped ramps - but way faster - up to 60 miles per hour. Then, the female, if she decides he's her choice, hums over to face him and they fly up and down, together in aerial ballet. Their tiny nest of lichens, spider silk, and plant down, often on a horizontal tree branch over a stream, will hold two eggs.

We've witnessed that spectacular drama as Somme. Lisa has not videoed it, but she has photographed some flirting. It's then you see the male's ruby throat to best advantage.
That throat is intense - when focused in your direction.
But move a little to one side of the other, and it goes black. 
Here, the female is on the left, pretending not to notice.
The male is on the right, focusing the red of his throat on her!
She notices, a bit. He notices, a lot. The camera still sees his throat as black.
A dance: they change places, hover, flit back and forth, often too fast to follow, and then alight again. 
These photos were taken at Somme by co-steward Lisa Culp Musgrave, who had a splendid time of it. The female in the pollination close-up photos got quite tame, as Lisa sat very still in a quiet woodland glade. Except for her trigger finger.

Thanks to Lisa for great photos. Thanks to hundreds of like-minded volunteers for restoring great habitat. 

Ehrlich, Paul R. David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye. 1988. The Birder's Handgook

The dramatic (to us at least) first report of hummingbirds in Somme Woods was posted in 2013.