Thursday, May 16, 2019

Big New Bird comes to Somme Woods

It’s such a treat to see rare bird species returning to Somme Woods as the ecosystem recovers.

The latest is a special surprise, the pileated woodpecker.
Lisa Culp Musgrave photographed this recently-returned, nesting pileated woodpecker at Deer Grove.
It is now nesting season. Might they be nesting in Somme Woods too?
For your amusement, I photographed the Somme pileated. With my cell phone!
Can you see it? On the base of that log?
Okay, here's the blow up of my cell photo. Not the best?
But sure enough, there is a pileated woodpecker in Somme!
Normally, this spectacular crow-sized woodpecker is found in very large, old, open woods. Before last evening, we’d never seen one at Somme.

But it's not a total surprise. Chicagoland Birds by Ellen Thorne Smith (Field Museum 1958, revised 1972) categorized the pileated as “not normally found in the Chicago region.” For recorded occurrences, it shows three dots in spring and six in fall, but not a single dot during the breeding season. The pileated now breeds regularly in the big Palos forest preserves.  

For me, the big bird was just part of a delicious adventure. I’d been scything invasive cat-tails from one of the Somme ponds, standing nearly knee deep in clean cool water that increasingly, with our efforts, has fewer and fewer narrow-leaved cat-tail and more and more sweet flag, bur reed, blue-flag iris, yellow floating buttercup, and more. My work with the scythe was surgical, slow, methodical, zen. Animals relaxed. A sora rail called. A green heron appeared. Birds, frogs, and salamanders seem to prefer this "more restored" pond to the nearby, larger, less-restored one.

Suddenly behind me I heard a loud and strange squawk. Now, I know most of the Somme squawks. But this was not a Cooper’s hawk, not a green heron, nor a baby owl. I turned and my jaw dropped. There was one of the few pileated woodpeckers I’d ever seen. 

It was clearly talking to me. What was I, it wondered? And why was I there? Then it demonstrated that it had probably watched me for some time, ruled me likely harmless, and knew what it wanted. When it called to me, and I turned and looked, and stayed chill, as it appeared to the pileated, it flew toward me and landed on a downed log, into the pond, and started chopping out large chunks of soft wood.   

As I worked, I came across seven red-winged blackbird nests. Two of them were within about three feet of each other. So much nature. It was a happy time. 

Pileated woodpeckers eat mostly ants.
Lisa's photo caught its tongue sticking into a hole the bird drilled for ants.
The sticky tongue fishes them out. 
A chicken-like marsh bird with huge feet, the sora nests in Somme every year. 
The rarest bird that has adopted Somme is the red-headed woodpecker.
Once common, their global numbers have been plummeting.
Two pair nested in Somme's open woods last summer.
They often show off near the end of the parking lot.
Woodcocks are also high on the conservation concern list. These two chicks survived that three-inch snowfall -
only to be startled by us as we picked garlic mustard. The woodhen tried to lure us away.
We followed her, to be polite, but first photographed these cuties. 
Red-winged blackbird eggs in the woodpecker pond's marsh. 

One last Lisa photo. The green heron eats Somme's large insects, frogs,
and salamanders - not too many, we hope.
But good habitat provides more for all.
Thanks to the volunteer restoration heroes who work at Somme, 
season after season, year after year after year - 
it's a greater and greater place.


Thanks to Lisa Culp Musgrave for the good bird photos. 

Monday, April 22, 2019

Tidbits: April 22, 2019

What the ecosystem is telling us in mid April:

The browned, fused tips of the big leaves on the right were caused by a late spring controlled burn. Wild leeks are up very early. They sometimes suffer slightly this way. The benefits to the ecosystem outweigh the indignity to the leeks. In the middle are bloodroots in bloom, some petals already dropped. To the left are the leaves of cut-leaved toothwort, which will bloom soon.
Marsh marigold is back! There were none in the Sommes when we started - likely lost while this land was a farm, or later to the shade of invasives. We gathered seed (as we did for so many other species) from a few locally rare wild populations and tossed the marsh marigold seeds into the wetlands. We counted 25 blooming marigolds along this one stream yesterday. If given a chance, biodiversity recovers.

The wacky expression on this stump is also a reflection of the fires. The big "smile" is one of four burn scars, this one from 1987 - 31 years ago (count the rings, out to the edge, which is 2018, when we cut this invader down). Fires bigger and hotter than we choose to ignite today would once have polished off this invader. Today, biodiversity needs our help.

This yellow-bellied sapsucker winters in the south and breeds in the north, it passes through Somme only briefly. But it leaves behind persistent, easy to notice, lines of holes in our trees.

It's now especially easy to notice such holes, as they ooze dark stains of wet sap down tree trunks, especially on the maples. The sap has been attracting flutters of red admiral butterflies.

Also oozing sap are some burned trees, like this one burned by the solstice bonfire. In addition to three admirals, I count 11 flies. Some people think that butterflies are great - but flies bad. The ecosystem begs to differ. Yes, butterflies pollinate. But flies are the crucial clean up squad. With the energy these flies get from sap, they'll hunt around and find dead animals. They'll lay eggs on the corpses - that will produce maggots - that will rapidly eat up the flesh before it starts stinking up the place. Of course, flies may pollinate too, but we shouldn't short-change their other ecological services.

This admiral has its wings closed to show its cryptic underside. Predators, don't take notice. 

Though its photo may be half out of focus, we were so happy to find this lonely hepatica. It is a survivor. We'd seen it years ago, alongside one of the trails, but not in recent years. We now knew of hepatica in only three places in the Sommes. We regretted to think we'd lost one, even though a single plant, as it was possibly a plus to the restoration as genetically distinct from the others. Or possibly maintaining some rare fungus or bacterium with its roots. (For more on Somme hepatica, see First Flowers of Spring.)

Everyone seems surprised every year that we have April snowstorms, every year. This one blanketed us on April 14 - while hepatica and bloodroot were already in bloom. As the snow melted, those same flowers emerged unscathed to greet also unscathed pollinators.

As it turned out, volunteer stewards too survived the snow. Here five of us pause for a photo before contributing more brush logs to the fire.

And here as snow blurs the photo, 18 of us pause for snacks and sociability. Life and restoration have these dramas. 

As the season advances, bloodroot leaves expand and rise and fold themselves around the flowers as if protectively. I suspect they do protect. I wonder from what. 

Almost invisible on the gorgeous forest floor are owl feathers. They color themselves like foxes, coyotes, chipmunks, deer, hermit thrushes, fox sparrows, and so many species that want to blend in. 

Looking closer with Rob Sulski: 

Survival of the fit. Rob merely glanced at this photo before exclaiming, "in blood." Turns out that's a falconers' term for feathers just erupting. See those long white bases? Out of those, the feathers emerge. That fact suggests this was a mostly-grown owl chick. Perhaps eaten by a red-tailed hawk or a coyote. (Adults replace feathers a few at a time. The feathers would not be all just emerging if from a healthy adult.) A large portion of the young of most birds and mammals don't make it. Youth is hard. But a deep and quiet beauty remains.

Rob is a falconer, blues musician, plant propagator, environmental regulator. He knows so much that I don’t.  Yet I know stuff that he doesn’t. We put our heads together. What is unknown by us may be known by our volunteer colleagues Linda Masters, or Sai Ramakrishna, or Eriko Kojima, or both of our Matts, or Stephanie Place. We end up being richer as a team and community.

Back in our seed production beds we've been agonizing over rue anemone. We get few seeds. Those we get don't so far seem to produce plants when broadcast into the wild. In savanna and open woodland restoration, rue anemone is deeply desirable - a high conservative associate that promotes sustainability among diverse species. It reproduces well enough in our best weeded, seed production beds of diverse conservatives, but we have only so much time for weeding - and rank competition shades it out. On the other hand, now we're finding rue seedlings emerging in our adjacent ill-kept lawns. We dug some up (see above and below). To make sure what we're dealing with, we Very Carefully pulled the other plants away until we could see the roots. Yes, they're just under the surface. Easy to dig. (The "lawn" is full of violets, veronica, dandelion seedlings, moss, etc.) Both plants revealed two little potato-like roots. (Note: do not dig up plants from wild places that you don't own.)

We will nurture these in pots until they get bigger and then put them out into the ecosystem, some late fall or early spring, while still dormant. In the past we did that with plants rescued from wooded home-construction areas. For two decades we saw little reproduction. But now, forty years later, some of those individuals are surrounded by patches of thirty or forty younger plants. Perhaps that's the way to restore them. Perhaps they need to spread slowly to take along with them interdependent fungi or bacteria or nematodes or whatever.

This leek patch, similarly, has been getting larger, and denser. Leeks shrivel into the duff as soon as the tree foliage gets dense, using resources from the leaves to replenish the roots for next spring. Here among red and white oaks, where we've been thinning invasives (see the remains of pole maples lying by their stumps in the foreground), more diverse summer and fall flora will emerge from our broadcast seed mixes. The leeks will be less monocultural - part of a more resilient ecosystem. (And the leeks, unlike the rue anemones, though initially few, turn out to spread well throughout the preserve by the seed we broadcast.)

Back to rue anemone, it appears delicate but is a rugged, long-lived building block toward quality biodiversity.

Here's how an old rue anemone seed-garden planting looks after a lot of weeding:
Before taking this photo, we painstakingly plucked the leaves of lovely and sometimes rare plants that we don't need - for the benefit the species we do need. Above we are favoring: rue anemone, shooting star, meadow parsnip (Thaspium), violet wood sorrel, and dog violet. (For now, we’re not weeding wood betony, Pennsylvania sedge, and cream gentian - though we don’t so much need seed of those species, but more view them as effective companions for what we do need. 

Species we're weeding out: bluegrass, golden Alexanders, wood anemone (see below), thimble anemone, smooth tick-trefoil, and common blue violet.

If you zoom in on this photo and look closely, you'll notice that there are still some of those five-part wood anemone leaves that need to be weeded out. As yo notice them, perhaps you'll feel an itch to weed, like us restoration gardeners.

The mottled leaves and reflexed-petals flowers with yellow stamens are trout lily. The five-petaled yellow-centered flowers with five-part leaves are wood anemone. The purple stems with paired leaves (starting to rise over the rest to turn this whole patch baby blue with blooms in a couple of weeks) are woodland phlox. This little garden ecosystem has beauty after decades, but the dense wood anemone seems to prevent the reproduction of fire pink, rue anemone, yellow wood violet, and other seed we need more. We keep this mix for now as a pretty pet, until we have time to help this bed contribute more. 

Last photo of this post: Bloodroot petals that braved snow are now proudly falling to make way for seed capsules that will be erect, long, and thicker than the fattest green beans. By then they'll be difficult to see, down under the expanding leaves. We'll harvest and broadcast bloodroot seed in Somme, where there was none but has been proliferating mightily. Onward! and Upward! noble ecosystem recovery!

Sapsucker photo thanks to Outdoor Alabama. 
Thanks to Kathy Garness for proofing and edits. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

First Flowers of Spring (be still, my heart)

White, purple, pink, and every color in between  hepaticas have just popped out of dead leaves, our first wildflower at the Somme preserves. They pose some questions.

How do we restore them, for example?

Records suggest that they were common and widespread in the oak woods. These days, few woods in this area have many - or any. At Somme, for years, I knew of only two individual plants, now both gone. What happened to them? Then, unexpectedly we found a patch of thirty, and we vowed to protect and restore them widely.

A few are open. A few are just coming up through the leaves. Most are still invisible. 
We wondered if it would help the plants if we were to rake off a lot of those smothering last-year's dead leaves.
For example, here. Why this photo? It's the "before." We only suspected that there were live hepatica leaves under this litter because we remembered where they grew. Notice that gray stick on top for reference in the next photo.
These emerald gems are the hepatica leaves. They photosynthesized through spring and summer of 2018 and then settled down for a winter under autumn's fallen leaf blanket. Why do that? Most perennial plants transport what they can from their leaves back to their roots for storage (and energy) over the winter. Pine trees keep their leaves and photosynthesize all winter. But hepatica keeps green leaves where the sun can't get at them. What gives?
Here's a leaf close up. Some are all green, and some have purplish patterns. 

(Trivially, hepatica leaves are shaped like human livers. The name "hepatica" comes from a word for liver, just as "hepatitis" means "disease of the liver." Long ago ignorant herbalists thought that God placed "signatures" in plants so we could figure out what diseases they cure. This leaf was prescribed for liver disease. The herbalists who sold it claimed it worked. It didn't.)

Hepatica are delicate plants. They grow slowly. We have broadcast seed around now for a few years and as yet seen no results. We have hoped, but not expected. Tom Vanderpoel said that in his experience, "hepatica do come from seed – but few – and slowly." Rob Sulski has raised some in pots for us. After a year, they're so small. It takes time.
Whatever their secrets and science, we love them. Our first flowers of spring. So sweet and good. Bless.

A "more technically interesting and detailed" version of this post is at Strategies For Stewards.

All photos above were taken with a handy cell phone in the last fine week of long-awaited spring. 

Thanks to Kathy Garness for proofing and edits. 

Monday, December 31, 2018

Why Celebrate the New Year with a Bonfire?

To Celebrate the Return of the Sun – and Life?

To feel humble as we face the overwhelming power of fire and climate as forces of nature?

Yes, yes, for all these reasons. But there are more.

Let's start with a taste of the fire itself. People have stood in awe of that power for thousands of years. Click here for an example (a pale example - since you aren't in its real presence) but a taste:

Let’s start with the five easiest reasons:

1. Truly to celebrate the fact that, after the solstice, daylight hours will increase for 182 days in a row. Longer, lighter days seem like a blessing. By January 1 the days are getting longer by about one minute each day. 

2. To relax, to escape the malls and shopping and "tiz the season" responsibilities. To see friends and be peaceful during a crowded season.

3. To celebrate woods, trees, wild animals, and the planet and - of course - the workings of the solar system. To be conscious and appreciative of it all.

4. To thank the Somme forest preserve stewards for another year’s generous work. To thank the neighbors and the public generally  – for patience and support.

5. To get rid of a huge amount of invasive brush  – invasive trees and shrubs  – cut and piled to restore health to the ecosystem  – and teach people why burning brush and replanting natural diverse seeds are good. (The brush we slay is often so thick that to leave it heaped everywhere would just stress the ecosystem in yet another way.)

You’ll notice that there’s no strictly “religious” reason above. This festivity is not exactly “faith-based” although it is “faith friendly.” Somme Woods Forest Preserve is owned by the people of Cook County, Illinois and is situated in the Village of Northbrook. Somme Woods is owned and appreciated by Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Bahais, people of other faiths, and fine citizens who aren't interested in religion. To the ancient Druids and Celts, solstice bonfires may have been directly religious. In some current religions, 'festivals of lights' and 'good will' are said to have historic connections with the general time of the solstice. 
Marty Maneck on the bagpipes leads the procession through the woods.
This celebration is partly tradition and partly very new.
The solstice and New Year today mark something that's fundamentally science. They are an opportunity to explain to curious kids what the sun does and how the tilt of the Earth’s axis works. Our solstice is a day when religion and science can relax together.

Stewards cutting brush often say, “Let there be light.” There’s joking and interesting discussion throughout the year as the Somme Woods volunteers slay invasives to let in the sun. One day a boy said to his dad, “Oh, I get it. You need the ‘photo’ to have the ‘synthesis’.” 

Death by shade is the sad fate of many woods. Stewards work to bring biodiversity back.
There’s a parallel between “ecosystem death by shade" and shortening December days. But getting up and coming home in the dark is only temporary. Ecosystem death can be permanent.

The oak woods and prairies of the American Midwest are fire-dependent natural communities. Thousands of species are declining and going locally extinct because, in the absence of controlled burns, invasive trees and shrubs shade out the understory. Ecosystem extinction is like what would happen if after 182 days of darkening, the sun just kept shutting down. Ecosystem recovery after brush clearing is like spring. At the bonfire, we celebrate "the return of the sun" in two senses.

Thriving natural woodlands need stewardship and community support.
For five million years, the lightning-lit fires that swept the prairies and oak woodlands followed rhythms somewhat like the seasons. Vegetation would burn off, grow back, and burn again. When the “Native Americans” here arrived from Asia, following the retreat of our most recent glacier, those new Americans started burning the landscape, as people did over much of the temperate world. Thus our major ecosystems evolved with fire for millions of years (and, as tweaked by people, for the last few millennia). Without fire we lose the species, resources, and heritage of that long evolution. 

Somme Woods has celebrated this season with a bonfire every year since 1999. It started small. These days hundreds of neighbors show up. We don’t advertise beyond some Facebook posts and a banner by the entrance. People come by word of mouth. They relax about it. 

After the procession and bagpiper, the pile is lit. People study it as a looming, dramatic curiosity. The initial billowing white "smoke" is mostly evaporating water. Over five or ten minutes the conflagration grows, and people move back, and then farther back. Every year we feel awe for its power. When the flames are going up thirty feet or more, they make a roar and a wind that shakes the nearby trees. It becomes a power of nature. Like an earthquake, lightning, hail, or a tornado. It humbles us. Going below the surface in religion or science humbles us. Feelings of peace and good will may be facilitated by that humbling power.

After the fire peaks, generous people serve home-made spiced cider, hot chocolate, and baked morsels. We watch the aesthetics and physics of the fire, and talk, and think. Some sing or play music. We all just talk about whatever people talk about.
Kids line up to master the art of climbing a tricky tree - and then perform.

Parents let kids play. In these  woods creative youngsters consistently discover a giant playground. Every year in different ways they mine the opportunities. Big old downed trees look festive as kids in their bright colors drape themselves over every limb. They make snow sculptures or turn over logs to check for creepy crawlies. Streams and ponds lure them. Parents supervise but treat them with holiday indulgence.

As the fire dies down, the drama draws to a natural close. People move closer to the flickering embers, especially if the day is cold. We and the ecosystem are ready for another year.

Photo credits: Carol Freeman, Lisa Culp, and Tina Onderdonk

A different blog on this event, written mostly for stewards, is at:

Friday, December 28, 2018

Eager Embryos for the New Year

Some of us stewards have been raking leaves in the forest. Are we crazy? Have we been duped by that Finland nonsense? 
Raking forest leaves into piles and onto tarps? Really?
Then tossing tarp-fulls on to a bonfire? What gives? 
In fact, we are restoring nature, guided by actual scientific experiment. Previously, we found that our rare, precious seed produced few or no seedlings when we broadcast it on dense woodland leaves. See photo below from 2015.
We had sowed patches of seed in circular plots a) where leaves had been raked away and b) in similar unraked plots. Only the raked plots produced bountiful seedlings, as shown here, during the second spring, following a burn. 
For more on this experiment, see Endnote 1. 

Where we cut away the dense buckthorn, there is little flora left to recover. So, as suggested by the experiment, we generally broadcast our seed after a burn removes the leaf litter. The seed then works its way into that blackened, bare ground – and seedlings thrive. But we didn’t manage to have a prescribed burn this fall, because a strange wet fall didn’t give us a single day when the leaves were dry enough to burn (has not happened in the last 40 years). We plant with some success (we believe, though we are only now starting comparative tests) after spring burns as well. But some species need to be in the ground all winter. So, experimentally, we rake leaves off some areas for seeding. 
Nine bags of seed for “MW” or “mesic woods” (mesic meaning in between “wet” and “dry” woods). We gather a dozen different mixes, with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of seed, if we were to buy it. But the local ecotype is not available commercially. In other words, this rare seed is invaluable. We don't want to waste it.
The handfuls of seeds that we carefully broadcast are the future of the ecosystem that will support butterflies, birds, salamanders, beetles, coyotes, and the whole family. 
What to do with those leaves we rake off? We sometimes make piles. But that’s not the preference in the areas that have diverse spring flora. The piles are thick enough to kill much of the existing flora that comes up underneath. (It’s the summer and fall flora that’s dramatically killed off by the excess shade.)

Although it’s more work, we sometimes toss tarp-fulls of leaves over a brush bonfire. Then we’re rid of them. They burn more like dry leaves would burn in a controlled fire, more completely and hotter. Such burning is very different from the smoking piles of leaves that drew public outcry years ago by people sensitive to smoke. This is different smoke, and convection tends to loft it happily out over Lake Michigan. 

So, raking means “Happy New Year” to the literally millions of rare embryos of the more than 200 plant species that we have gathered, prepped for planting, sorted into wetness-and-shade-level mixes, and now raked for and broadcast.

We look forward to celebrating with them their bounteous futures in years to come.

Spring: In a restored area, blooming geranium, robin plantain, yellow stargrass, and bastard toadflax share space with species that bloomed earlier, like wood betony, and which will bloom later, including cream vetchling or “wood pea.” 

In early summer this restored open woodland features blooming wild columbine, spiderwort, and beardtongue. All these and many others had been killed off by the buckthorn shade and were seeded back in.
Later in the summer, Joe-Pye-weed and woodland sunflower start to overtop the starry campion, wild coffee, and woodland brome, which bloomed earlier. 


Endnote 1

In the photo, six of the raked circular plots are obvious here in the second year of this experiment – because of the diverse vegetation emerging. This vegetation did not emerge in the unraked circles. Indeed, the sparse emerging vegetation outside the raked plots now is almost exclusively young maple trees. Oddly, lots of maples emerged in the un-raked patches, but not in the raked patches. Perhaps the maples couldn’t compete with the restored turf from the diverse seed mix? Maple invasion is a major degradation threat in the oak woodland.

How did the grasses, sedges and wildflowers of the oak woods reproduce before we were here to rake leaves? Perhaps only after burns? Or perhaps just very slowly. We notice that in scattered small patches the ground is bare of leaves because of animal disturbance, or wind, or whatever. Perhaps most seedlings once germinated in those patches. 

Another possibility is suggested by our experience with savanna and prairie seeding, which is much different than our woods experience. While we’d prefer to seed on the year of a burn, there’s actually seedling-establishment potential in savannas and prairies during non-burn years because the structure of the previous year’s vegetation prevents the build-up of a thick mat of fallen leaves. Unlike tree leaves, much prairie vegetation is more vertical than flat. Perhaps as the years progress and diverse vegetation is restored, seeds will do a lot better in the better-vegetated woodlands without our help. 

for photos to Eriko Kojima and Stephen Packard

for hard work and high spirits - to scores of Somme weekend stewards
(P.S. You're invited to join in. See our schedule at Somme calendar.