Wednesday, June 27, 2012

So Very Sexual, Wholesome and Fulfilling

A shocking and magical moment in the woods today: June 26, 2012. 

Linda, the Steward of Somme Woods, had enlisted me to help broadcast seeds of wood rush (Luzula multiflora). We also bagged seeds of the invasive reed canary grass, to removed before they spread.

The show started when we paused in awe by a scene neither of us had ever witnessed – a stand of more than thirty Michigan lilies blooming in this open woods. While we admired the plant jewels, an animal gem swept in. The female humming bird paused at each lily to slurp nectar and catch a bug or two before shooting almost faster than the eye could follow to the next flower – to hover below, then above, then try another angle, then move in to drink and eat.

The first hummer we'd seen in the gradually recovering Somme Woods. But then the whole scene went up for grabs as a male hummingbird joined the nectar party, then launched a spectacular courtship dance. He swooped like a feathered roller coaster. The U-shaped flight path took his tiny self repeatedly from the tree tops, down through the lilies, and back up to the tops again. 

Over and over he careened, back and forth, up and down, filling the entire opening, making this bit of woods a work of art, a happening. He owned it. During the swoop he’d turn his brilliant ruby throat into the sun for iridescent explosions. And sing a metallic song both faster and octaves higher than Charlie Parker.

Then the two hummingbirds vanished, perhaps for love, a nest, two eggs and babies. And even in their absence, our two human hearts and minds continued to swell.

Those lilies and hummingbirds were bursting with life here for a reason – and because of us. Don’t look today in the average woods for such birds and flowers. For millennia such life filled oak woods by the millions. But in recent decades, lilies have declined almost to nothing. Invasives have made the woods too dark for them. Once nesting principally in open woods, hummingbirds are almost unheard of in tallgrass woodlands these days. Hummingbirds are co-evolved with some of our most impressive flowers – mostly red or orange ones – lilies, fire pinks, columbine, wild coffee, cardinal flower, figwort. You don’t see great stands of these in the woods any more – for the same reason the oaks are not reproducing. Too dark. The malignancy of invasives – and lack of fire – and too many deer had indeed driven out most species of flowers, and grasses, and butterflies, and birds, and so much more.

Thus, our emotions is being privileged to witness this breathtaking performance: we felt gratitude from the forest. This drama meant success. Linda and many volunteers have for decades cut the invasive trees and burned them in bonfires, stamped out the herb invaders, gathered and broadcast the seeds of hundreds of displaced plant species, many of which barely survive in today's "preserves." Here we planted lilies, fire pinks, columbines and all.

With this performance, the woods thanked us for the controlled burns, which helped the fire-adapted species to thrive, and thanked us for fewer deer. Our advocacy supported the deer-control programs that are increasing in the forest preserves. But for most sites, the lilies and hummingbirds are still gone.

Most of this region's scattered reports of humming birds during the breeding season are of vagrants, hanging around for sugar water from red plastic dispensers on patios. Today's ruby-throats were fully natural (and much less subject to neighbors’ pesticides) in their ancestral place.

We thank the forest preserves, the hummingbirds, the lilies, and you too, assuming, dear reader that you're a steward or supporter. What a pleasure and an honor, to share such victory!


Despite a zillion ruby-throated hummingbirds on YouTube, I can’t find a video of the mating dance. Can you? We’re reduced to diagrams. Too fast to follow without radar? Still, in this age, the hummingbird acrobatics is a drama where "you have to be there."

Photo of Michigan lily in Somme Woods by Lisa Culp. The hummer is from Steve Creek Outdoors.

This blog subsequently posted later reports on hummers, for example in 2019. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Amputations and Restorations

Amputations and Restorations

This old bur oak shows its battle scars, its progeny and some quandaries.

Before we cut the tall invasive trees away, the three dead limbs on the right were completely hidden. Over decades, those three now-leafless limbs had been shaded out, essentially amputated, by invasive trees. 

The now-dead limbs grew at a time when this tree had ample light on that side -- perhaps one or two hundred years ago. Now new lower branches are growing where the invasives had been.

This summer great-crested flycatchers and yellow-throated vireos sing from these branches. These birds of conservation concern have repopulated the more open woodland these last few years. The ancient oak may thrive another hundred years, but it won’t last forever. Will another spreading majesty replace this one? What of all those skinny pole trees behind it? They will never be such. We agonize over what to do with them.

Lake County Forest Preserves ecologist Ken Klick suggested thinning. Some axe work is one good thought. But how do we decide which should go? In any case, we’ve been following another approach, perhaps not the best? We’ve imagined that repeated burns might do the thinning nature’s way, and favor the more fire-adapted individuals.  But a highway is close, downwind of this grove on most burn days, so the burns are muted, and few oaks have been thinned that way.

We love hickories, but we also know that they can be overabundant to the point of inhibiting the bur oaks that are the backbone of this ecosystem. We could cut most of the hickories and some of the oaks, as we’ve done elsewhere.

Indeed, one of our principles has long been to thin sufficiently so that the old canopy species can reproduce. Here, in Circle Grove, all the really old trees are bur oaks. They stand around the edge, in a circle. The inner giants may have been cut because they were straighter, or bigger, or they may have died because they were older, or some other history may apply.

In the foreground of this photo, the many bronzy leaves are the tops of young bur oaks. There’s plenty of opportunity for young trees to spread and grow here. Yet these trees are mixed with tall grasses, and the fires burn off their tops every couple of years. They have to start over after each fire. Should we isolate this area from the fires for a few years until the grasses get shaded back and the oaks get big enough to withstand today’s milder fires?

So many questions. Most of them we don’t bother to answer, because there are so many varied conditions even on this 83-acre site that most ‘experiments’ are being performed naturally – and we have only so much time to help. New oaks are indeed becoming sustainable trees in many places.

Yet, if we had time, we’re eager for our work everywhere to be the best, and we need to set priorities. What would you do here?