Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Young Red-tail Learns a Lesson

Young red-tailed hawks at Somme are often fun. They’re relatively fearless, and they do goofy things  on the way toward being a grown-up. You can tell them from the adults by the lack of that deep red tail. But you can also recognize them by their actions.
Lisa Culp was “sneaking up” to photograph one, when she realized it just wasn’t much concerned about her. Suddenly it flew down and landed in a nearby shallow puddle. It looked intently into the water, wading around with splashes dripping off its legs. What was it seeing? It’s own handsome reflection? Checking the puddle later, Lisa found no frogs, no animals of any kind.
Red-tail youth (above left) starts its ferocious dive

For its next display 
of inexperience, 
the hawk decided 
to hunt ducks. 
Adult red-tails 
don't regularly try that, 
and the youngster 
showed us why. 
It first perched 
over a pond 
where mallards were swimming and repeatedly 
swooped down on them. 

In each case 
the ducks easily scooted out of the way with startling splashes, 
leaving a confused hawk, 
again perched, 
studying them, 
and trying again.

The ducks could  
have flown away, 
or just swum to 
a different part of the pond. 
But no, they treated 
the hawk as 
a clueless nothing.

Male (left) and female (center) mallards watch
as wet hawk (right) tries to get airborne again

At one point, 
the hawk actually dove at them such that it ended up stuck 
down in the water of the pond 
and had to go through 
some gymnastics 
to get itself airborne again.   
The mallards hardly even 
moved away.

After many tries 
and much loss of energy 
(to say nothing of pride), 
the red-tail returned to normalcy, surveyed the grassland, 
pounced on a mouse, 
and perched on a dead limb to eat it. 

“I had hoped for duck. Well, it’s mouse again,” it seemed to say. 
The hawk was learning 
its own nature. 

It's a pleasure having this handsome animal figuring out how to be itself at Somme Prairie Grove. 
I want to say to it, "Little one. You're getting better and better. You'll have 
that rich red tail and be a fine and full-grown hawk some day. You're doing great." 
I hope we can all learn from our mistakes with dignity as well.

All photos taken by Lisa Culp on March 28, 2013 at Somme Prairie Grove

Monday, April 01, 2013

Ashes to Ashes (and oaks to oaks)

Can something be tragic and inspiring at once?
For me, the ash disaster is.

“Death to the Ash!” means Life to the Oaks (and hundreds 
of other declining species)! Or at least it can...

In many forest preserves, ash trees are the major invasives that have been destroying oak woodland and savanna ecosystems.
Flaky bark means dead ash. These were left to the borers when this savanna was restored.

When scientists 
told us that the emerald ash borer would kill all our big ash trees, it seemed unthinkable. 
We could have waited (sort of like “climate change deniers”)
to see if the scientists were right. 
But instead we stopped cutting big ash as we restored our 
oak savannas and woodlands. 
Why stop? 
There’s urgency here. Thousands of populations of hundreds of species are dying out year after year because of the shade of ash and other quick-growing "weed trees." 
Why waste time?
We now cut buckthorn, box elder, basswood and similar invasives, but we leave the ash. 
can dispatch them.
Educating people to appreciate the evil of invading shade is challenging. Death by ash is different from death by bullet or auto crash. It’s harder for people to understand - or identify with. But whether by
Hundreds of animal and plant species now have a second chance.
shade or by clear-cutting for a mall, you’re equally dead, if you’re a young oak tree. Oaks of all ages love light and need it. Shade is like cancer, a slow and ugly killer.

In the 1800s, when the natural fires stopped, white and green ash from the ravines and floodplains overran our oak woodlands and savannas just as destructively as the other invasives. But now, with ash death, a huge opportunity has opened up for tens of thousands of acres.

Owners of conservation land are making plans to convert the misfortune of the ashes to the fortune of the oaks – and a potentially miraculous recovery of the plants and animals that depend on the open oak ecosystems.  Should I list a few? Gray fox, blue-spotted salamander, creamy wild pea, ruby-throated hummingbird, purple milkweed, and great-spangled fritillary.  

In areas of many ash trees, half the work is now being done for us. Before new light gaps fill with invasives, these areas deserve quick plans and action. What does that mean? Cut other key invasives,
This dismal photo shows a dead bur oak, leaning across the foreground. It died of shade
 from faster-growing ash and basswood, in the absence of fire. Gone with the oaks are 
hundreds of other species. How can we teach people to see this? 
start controlled burns, re-seed if needed, and provide the education and political support that goes with all the above.

We mourn the ash, an important component of many non-oak forests. At the same time – we celebrate the liberation of animals and plants of the oak lands. Huge noble areas that seemed doomed now have a chance to thrive again.

Ashes to ashes

When they die, they’ll stand for years as habitat for beetles and woodpeckers and flying squirrels and great crested flycatchers. Some people will argue to cut them all down. Nature wants them to stand for the decade or more as they have their "second life" as yet another irreplaceable habitat. Someday their weathered trunks will fall. Then a slowly rotting log on the ground is yet a third habitat. That log means salamanders, frogs, snails, beetles, roly-polies, mushrooms, and places for us to sit and contemplate the miracle of lives. Ultimately, beautiful and life-giving burns will consume each log. Ashes to ashes.
Eastern bluebird on scarlet oak branch. These handsome creatures now 
breed again at Somme. Hundreds of less-easy-to-see species also need 
the dappled light of open oaks and now-rare diversity that oaks support.  
(Photo by Lisa Culp)

Oaks to oaks  

When oaks aren’t reproducing their cute little baby oaks, some people imagine we must be seeing a natural process called “succession.” It’s the opposite. When the once light-dappled floor of the oak woodland is clotted with dark invaders, whether ash or buckthorn or maple or whatever – the rich, ancient ecosystem dies. Oaks are the foundation of a community that is the Earth’s only home for thousands of species that don’t live in other kinds of woods. Now rare flycatchers, woodpeckers, mushrooms, nematodes, walking sticks, shrubs, foxgloves, grasses, sedges, ants, lichens, rare and potentially-important bacteria as well as other tree species all depend on our oak woods. Let's rescue them from the oblivion of extinction. Now's the time. Save them!