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 National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NWFW). 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 next 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 railroad tracks. 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 630 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  

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 directed of Audubon – 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 surrounding 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.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Power of Color

The savanna in bloom stops me, grabs me, directs me. Below are 18 photos I couldn't help take on July 16, 2019 at Somme Prairie Grove - and the stories they whispered in my ear.

We know that a coral reef is rare, threatened, and packed with biodiversity. We care. Part of "the why" is that it's so exquisitely, brightly colored. If all were dull green, I suspect we wouldn't care so much.

Of course, there are evolutionary reasons for those diverse bright colors, and why we care. Subconsciously, we feel their meaningfulness.
I went to Somme Prairie Grove at 7:00 AM to scythe the trails. (If you want to know more about why, check Endnote 1.) The light was harsh. I did not expect to be taking photos. 
Blue sky usually means glaring light. To the disappointment of some people, I rarely see or take a grassland photo that feels fully rich and also has blue sky. I clicked this one when a rare opportunity arose, as blessed clouds started moving in, while the sky in the other direction maintained that preferred-by-most-people blue. And the thin clouds kept coming!

Ha! "Photographers' light. "Now, for a brief period, cloud-filtered, rich light: and, for you, the 18 photos that demanded I take them - also some brief thoughts on what they might mean. 
Here, butterfly-weed is especially dense along a brushy edge. It's out in the open grassland too, but it often establishes with extra density in places where brush has recently burned away. 
Savanna differs from prairie in that way. It changes more, as shade alternately increases and burns off, and novel plant communities come and go.
Further from the brush edge, all plants seem to be more diversely spread out and smaller, thanks to the intense competition of a relatively stable community.

Other species above: Big leaves - prairie dock. Lavender - wild bergamot. Yellow petals - black-eyed Susan. Yellow plumes - early goldenrod (a delicate treasure, unlike the thuggish tall goldenrod of roadsides).
To me, high summer truly starts only when lead plant and the prairie clovers start to bloom. This purple prairie clover springs out of a wreath of prairie dropseed grass. Dropseed is recognized by its fine leaves radiating out of big clumps. Leadplant is the dark purple. 
In this case, it's the lead plant springing out of the dropseed. Big bluestem is the tall, thick grass stem reaching toward the top left corner. Some of the finest prairies are dominated by dropseed, with bluestem playing a minor role. The forbs (or "wildflowers") dominate both the diversity and the color in grasslands. But the grass is the bulk of the biomass in any fine prairie or savanna. 
What's this? Blue sky again. Am I about out of photographers light? Time to get back to work? But also a pause to think. See those dead trees in the background? They're white oaks. When this much grass burns, the intensity of the fire is enough to kill white oaks. The natural oak here is the bur. Long ago a 'reforestation" project planted many species of trees here. But these days, with biodiversity conservation the goal, we need to bring back the natural bur oaks - the most fire-resistant oak - the one that dominated the tallgrass savanna - that community between the richest prairies and the woodlands. We've been planting and protecting bur oaks, so that they'll be able to replace the whites as they fade out over time. 
Yecchh! Here's an ugly photo. As I pause, I spot this white sweet clover - a nasty threat to grassland biodiversity. I stop to pull it, as I do whenever I see any. Oops, now I see more to pull. Perhaps while I wrench them out, the cloud-filtered light will return?
Sure enough, it's back and beautiful. In this case it lures me to take a photo that shows more disturbance-dependent ecological process. 

In all these photos, the species discussed so far are the ones planted for restoration, the prairie and savanna grasses and forbs rescued from railroad rights-of-way, obscure corners of this site, and other minuscule remnants - to restore bigger nature here. After we broadcast their painstakingly collected seeds, the job of those plants is, with the help of fire, to replace the weeds. Here again for a time, butterfly-plant is bigger and more common that it might have originally been - because it's good at replacing weeds. One weed that has been diminishing here is tall goldenrod (its rank leaves and tall stem are at the bottom left and fill parts of the foreground). Bit by bit the bergamot, butterfly-plant, prairie dock and leadplant ecologically elbow it out of the way. How will it all balance out in the long run? It's fun to watch the process, year by year.
I like this photo because it draws my eye off into the unknown distance. Today no tallgrass savanna wilderness exists. Remnants are pathetic at best, and all restorations are small. We need much bigger. Perhaps some day there will be thousands of acres, as far as a person could walk, surprises and mysteries. Perhaps some day. 
Not just for us, many other animals need size too. I happened on these mating "Appalachian brown" butterflies a few days ago. They're doing their part for conservation. But rare animal populations on small sites have a high chance of extinction. 

I didn't chance across any animals I could cell-phone photograph this morning. But animals need to be part of the picture, so I include these few recent butterfly shots.
A handsome, freshly-emerged "great spangled fritillary" nectared on a milkweed as I searched for one of the site's rare orchids. They need hand-pollination, because Somme is too small for the orchid's specialized pollinators - large hawk moths. At least we can say we have a restored habitat for a great many fritillaries. 
I moved slow, clicked quietly, and a second fritillary arrived. Twice the blessing. 
Purple prairie clover - from more of a "pollinator's-eye-view." This species seems visited mostly by tiny, unusual bees. Are there rare species on this site? Does anyone know about their needs? So much more research and collaboration would help us restore, especially for invertebrates. 
Then, as if to contradict me, a bumblebee bombs in and goes to work passionately. Bless you, bumblebee. (More about this, technically, in Endnote 2.)
It's tempting to take "artistic" close-ups - especially with big prairie dock leaves.
But is this a better photo? It shows the fire-killed brush (in front of the dock leaf - and filling the top right part of the frame) that perhaps made way for the butterfly-plant and others. Perhaps I'll have use for both of these photos.
Or perhaps this photo covers all the bases. Pleasing dome of orange. Larger burned brush patches. Ugly tall goldenrod in foreground. Nice long view for size and mystery. Click. 
Does this post have too many flowers and not enough birds to capture the feel of the July savanna? Part of the magic is certainly its unusually colorful birds. Not much chance to capture that with my cell phone. So two of Lisa Musgrave's handsome shots deserve a place here. Bluebirds sang their delicate calls and fed fledglings as I got back to scything. I listen, and they're colorful in my mind's eye as I work.
With its rich chestnut red, the orchard oriole is a prized savanna community member. They showed up only after many hard-worked years of restoration. They too sang as I scythed. 
Today, the open savanna habitat of bluebird and orchard oriole is bright with flowers. But as I approach the oak woodland, flowers thin out until only some dramatic Michigan lilies remain.
Inside the woodland, no flowers entertained my mind. Is the woodland less diverse or inspiring than the savanna? Certainly not. The April and June floras here were rich indeed. Buds now top thousands of stems and tell a tale of floral and butterfly richness to come. But today it's in between. I'll chose the thinly-treed savanna today ...
... and get back to work ...  after leaving you with this one last photo. Here, far in the distance, if you zoom in, you can see the wires and railroad tracks that divide Somme Prairie Grove from Somme Prairie. Cutting just a few more invader trees will join together the grasslands on both sides - for a great boon to animals and plants of both ecosystems. But that's winter work. Today it will be hot. I scythed from 7:00 a.m. to 9:15. It was such a pleasure. Sorry to be having more than my share of the fun. But thanks for joining me on this little photo tour. 

Bonus Plant Identification
If you want to zoom in on the photo above, plants not mentioned earlier include: Yellow, in patches: prairie coreopsis. White spiky globes: rattlesnake master. Flat-topped white: wild quinine. 

Endnote 1
Most of us, this time of year, gather rare seeds. Some of us cut excess vegetation away from our trails. We want to keep the trails functional and pleasant for two reasons. First, so that people will be happy to visit - and, for that matter, to fall in love. Biodiversity conservation needs more volunteers and rarely, help from time to time when threats emerge and officials need to hear from people who care. Second, good trails will help people stay on them and not trample off all over everything. Many of our rare communities and rare species populations could be wiped out or badly damaged by trampling. It may be easy for thoughtful people not to step on a special plant while it's in bloom. But that's only a little part of the growing season. 

Actually, come to think of it, we need more volunteer help for trail care, if you might be interested. We train.    

Endnote 2
Most purple prairie clover flowers don't make seeds. Why not?

The new Flora of the Chicago Region: a Floristic and Ecological Synthesis by Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha lists 64 species of bees that visit its flowers so intensely that all the day's pollen is gone by mid-morning. As the authors put it:

"Just before dawn, the anthers synchronously dehisce inside of each partially open corolla, and as the sun crests above the horizon, the plants bathed by that first golden-rose wash of light, the anthers burst forth from their corollas, which are immediately visited by a diversity of pollen-collecting and nectar-consuming bees. Pollen is collected usually before 10:00 AM, the anther-denuded filaments being common after that time." 

Just before dawn, the pollen-bearing structures synchronously open inside of each partially open set of petals, and as the sun crests above the horizon, the plants bathed by that first golden-rose wash of light, the pollen structures burst forth from their petals, which are immediately visited by a diversity of pollen-collecting and nectar-consuming bees. Pollen is collected usually before 10:00 AM, naked stalks that once bore the pollen being common after that time. 

Okay. So why are those 64 species of bees seemingly unable to pollenate most of the flowers? Or perhaps might this conservative plant be helping itself by maturing seeds only with certain characteristics, as some plants selectively do?

It would be fun to know. But we don't need to for now, as this plant reproduces by the thousands at Somme. We use its predominantly empty seed coverings as the major carrier that improves our seed broadcast.

One last, thrillingly nerdy note on the bees of  purple prairie clover:  Most of them (well, 44%), according to Rericha, are from the genus Lasioglossum, “small to tiny” bees, often called sweat bees because, in addition to pollen, they like to land on us and lap our sweat. Just for the fun of it, here’s a handsome photo of one of those friendly little sweat bees on milkweed, from Robert A. Behrstock through Bug Guide.

To Kathy Garness and Eriko Kojima for proofing, edits, and suggestions.