Monday, July 29, 2013

Planning Notes for 2014

This post is intended for people who are interested in the details of ecological restoration. It consists of five “cases” – with photos that exhibit problems or opportunities accompanied by comments on possible solutions.

First, a definition of a word used often below:
conservative – a species that is most common under natural conditions – and rarely is found away from them. In ancient prairies, the conservatives are among the most common plants. In most “restored” or degraded prairies, they are rare or non-existent. There’s a longer note on conservative plants at the end of this post.

Case 1

Diagnosis: Weeds under control. Yet few conservative species are established. Most of what we’re seeing here are short termers – species that will give way to others, for better or ill, before long. The early goldenrod, for example will likely be replaced excessively by big bluestem (present now in small numbers) if nothing is done but burn.

Prescription: Broadcast seed of conservative species. Especially important are little bluestem and prairie dropseed – to head off the big bluestem. Sow seed of most difficult to establish species in the early goldenrod areas for best results.

Case 1A: close-up area 1

Patches like this strike me as the very most receptive to our most prized conservative seed. There is currently little aggressive tall grass here. The commonest plants shown (early goldenrod, black-eyed Susan, fleabane) are among the quickest to move out of the way for quality species. Sow such classy species as cream false indigo, Leiberg’s panic grass, white and purple prairie clovers, prairie dropseed, alumroot, shooting star, prairie gentian, yellow stargrass, prairie cinquefoil, etc.

Case 1B: close-up area 2

This patch shows quite a bit of young big bluestem along with many young ash trees and dogwood shrubs. A patch like this may be somewhat less prime for new seed. Given how little seed we have of the high conservatives, we should seed this area sparingly. Perhaps it’s a place to add somewhat aggressive species like rattlesnake master, prairie dock, compass plant – to increase the diversity of niches that the high conservatives will use to gradually become established from nearby over the decades.

Case 2

Here two high conservatives dominate (purple prairie clover and prairie dropseed).  Early goldenrod (which was dominant here years ago) has retreated to the frequency you might expect in stable, high-quality grassland. Although we see a little rattlesnake master, compass plant and rough blazing star, the
overall diversity seems low. It might not work so well to sow the high conservatives of mid-summer; the competition could be tough to overcome. Perhaps this is a place to sow spring species such as prairie betony, shooting star, and cream false indigo, which might then open up more niches.

On the other hand, this area is currently a great seed source for dropseed and prairie clover, so perhaps there’s no need to do much here in the short term. The best next step could be a variety of little inter-seeding experiments. First, find out which species will compete against these conservatives – before investing a lot of seed in an area, which might be slow to accept it.

Case 3
Two big questions here:
A. This is a new planting with good wildflower diversity but weak on grass (and thus, unstable). It’s hard to know whether it wants to be more mesic or wet-mesic overall. I’m thinking that we should focus on sowing dropseed and little bluestem in the drier parts – and switch grass and Dudley’s rush in the wetter parts.  
B. But the biggest question here is what to do with all those trash trees in the background. Both parts of this area were so dense with buckthorn that essentially no grasses or wildflowers survived. But the foreground area had few big trees, and we managed to clear them. In the background, large numbers of ash, cherry, elm, and box elder trees hold sway. It would take a big chunk of our volunteer time to cut and burn them. But there’s no sensible community to try and restore on the former prairie land underneath them. So our short-term strategy has been to plant natural species that may keep out the invasives and then wait until we have a better answer. If you look closely you may be able to see brown leaves on some of the trees to the right. That’s where fire singed some of the branches. Maybe fire will do most of our work for us here, while we invest our resources on other areas where the prescriptions are clearer.

Case 4 
            In this patch of scarlet oak savanna, we seemed to be getting increasing diversity and quality – until recently.
            Around the tree on the right, notice wild quinine, butterfly weed, ox-eye sunflower, big bluestem, wild bergamot, rattlesnake master, and others.
            Then woodland sunflower (Helianthus strumosus) started wiping much of it out. Perhaps this is a temporary stage, and diversity will come back? Or perhaps this sunflower is helpfully erasing species that aren’t so well adapted here, which would then be replaced by better-adapted species, if we broadcast their seed. We should experiment by inter-seeding such species, if we can identify good candidates.
Case 5 
Diagnosis: About half the trees in the center grove are dead. Some died from fire and others from Dutch elm or Emerald ash borer disease. The few oaks are fine. (In contrast, the grove on the left is mostly oaks and doing great.) Because we hadn’t had time to focus on it, we’ve left the dying grove to “nature.”  Of course, “nature” isn’t happening here, and the result is an increasingly unsustainable weedy and brushy mess. It will soon be another buckthorn monstrosity if we let current processes continue.
            We could plant two of our precious mixes of rare grasses and wildflowers of the species (first the one of species that would survive in the semi-shade of the edge – and second, further in, the mix of species for the shade of the grove interior). That could help keep the buckthorn at bay, but it could also be a waste of seed and effort, since the species that would grow there in the short term would not be adapted to the less shady conditions that are coming – as these mostly non-oak trees continue to die.
            Perhaps we could broadcast the seed of some of the easier to get semi-shade herb species in the hopes that they will seal the wound and ward off the brush. Or we could plant natural shrub-copse species in hopes of another native shrub island that we could experiment with (much appreciated by the significant bird species that nest at Somme).
            Or we could short-circuit the misery and cut the out-of-place trees this winter. That would seem easiest. We could then just plant the open savanna/prairie mix (as in the foreground here), which would then be easily sustainable with little added effort beyond regular burns. But we’re trying to restore the natural savanna here, and we already have more than enough of the “prairie” component.
            I’m inclined to recommend planting hazelnuts and bur oak acorns and protecting them from voles, rabbits, deer and fire in the early years. Perhaps some of the box elders and basswoods can for the next 15 or 20 years provide the amount of shade that oak and hazel will someday provide, and the community can transition gradually from non-oak to oak. This challenging area still needs a lot of observation, experimentation, and thought.

-            -            -            -            -            -            -            -            -            -            -  

... and, as promised at the end ...

a longer note on ecological conservatives

In many ways, the main and most challenging goal of ecosystem restoration is to establish plentiful conservatives. If such plants and animals are diverse and common, all the others will be intermixed with them, and we will have achieved the fundamental goal of conservation.

The quality of conservativeness is in the early stages of study, but good initial assessments for all plant species are available in the Floristic Quality Assessments that are now available for most Midwestern states and a few other regions.

Conservativeness is ranked on a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 being the highest. Examples of plants in the 0 range include ragweed, annual fleabane, and common milkweed. Typical alien weeds like dandelion would also be given a zero rating if these ratings weren’t reserved for native species.

Examples in the 9 and 10 range include prairie dropseed, white prairie clover, fringed gentian, prairie gentian, cream false indigo, prairie lily, Leiberg’s panic grass, prairie cinquefoil, prairie sundrops, heart-leaved Alexanders, and the prairie white-fringed orchid.

Conservative animals may or may not require conservative plants. But the ecosystem is less without them. Examples of conservative butterflies found by Ron Panzer to require conservative vegetation include the regal fritillary, Aphrodite, and the Edwards hairstreak. Birds of conservation concern may live for a time in some large pastures of alien grasses. But they’ll live sustainably in large high-quality prairies. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

A Cool Hike on a Hot Day

This blog tells
what a steward notices
in the balmy cool of 6:00 AM to 8:00 AM
on a later-to-be 95-degree day.

My basic mission is to look for purple loosestrife and white sweet clover, malignant invasives that, thanks to hard work, are now almost gone from Somme.

But in the first wetland, 
rather than any loosestrife, 
I find the very rare American slough grass. 

(There’s extra info on this endangered-in-Illinois plant at the end of this blog.) 

Here I’ll merely cite the thrilling fact that you can recognize it 
by its unusual seeds, flat and round, and arranged on the stalk like stacks of coins.

I found this handsome grass 
in six spots, 
but the counts per patch were low: 1, 1, 4, 1, 3, 1. 
Some years we find hundreds. Other years we find none. 
It was good to see some. 
The classy scientific name of American slough grass is Beckmannia syzigachne.

As I head up a wet swale, I find no evil invasives but do see signs of restoring biodiversity.

Where an ash died from the emerald ash borer, the flush of light enables a riot of now-uncommon plants. Starry campion, Joe-Pye-weed, tall coreopsis, ox-eye sunflower.

Another good sign 
is many "new" populations 
of Michigan lily – 
a species that didn't bloom 
at Somme 
for many years 
when the deer population 
was disastrously high.

Right by the lily, 
what to my wondering eyes should appear, 
but three blooming plants of the rare 
glade mallow, 
Napaea dioica
The ones at Somme 
may be the only glade mallows in Cook County. 

We’ve never found 
even one large, healthy, 
blooming plant at Somme before now. 
But more and more 
in recent years 
we’ve found bigger and bigger specimens. 
The problem for many years is that overpopulated deer 
had been too hard on them. 
This morning I find two patches – the first with three plants and the second with two. 

Five happiness.

Of course, 
if I look down 
below the flowers, 
I find that many 
of the leaves 
have been grazed off. 
But just finding 
five glade mallows 
big enough to bloom 
is a great step 
in the right direction. 

And it’s a beautiful day.

As I walk, 
I’m conflicted 
about my 
big human feet 
treading on 
the richness. 

Always I keep 
to the trails 
in the growing season, except when 
I’m stalking weeds 
or doing seeds. 
Being empowered 
as a steward 
gives me an odd privilege. 
When hunting 
sweet clover, 
I see beauty 
and surprises 
I wouldn’t otherwise allow myself.

Plants here:
Culver's root.
Early goldenrod. 
Mountain mint.
Dropseed grass. 

What are these golden threads 
creeping through the vegetation? 
Numerous times we’ve gotten warnings 
from well-meaning people that a sinister demon plant 
was devastating the vegetation. 
But it’s just our friend dodder, Cuscuta glomerata
a weird but natural parasitic morning glory. 

Strange plant: it has no leaves or roots. 
When the seeds germinate, the shoot immediately attaches to nearby vegetation and sucks out nutrients. 
Soon its waxy white flowers 
will bedeck the graceful flaxen stems. 
For a while the whole plant will be just stems 
and flowers. Later it will be stems and seed.

Does it do harm? No.  It creates a disturbance. 
A beautiful disturbance, if you look close. 
The ecosystem is adapted to it. 
Other plants will take the places of the ones 
it sets back, and a diverse cycle will proceed.

Next I do 
finally find 
the evil sweet clover. 

See the white sprays 
of pea flowers? 
Does it look threatening here? 

If not, know that 
twenty years ago, 
acres here were blighted and degraded 
by solid waist or chest-high stands of it.

Now I pull out 
the 48 plants 
in this first patch. 
A large plant can make 60,000 seeds. 

Good riddance.

The soil is damp, 
and the roots 
come out easily. 

Seeds haven’t formed yet, 
so I don’t need to haul plants 
out of the preserve.  

I toss piles 
where they'll do the least harm - 
in this case 
into a patch of 
the somewhat aggressive 
saw-tooth sunflower. 

I come across a pile we made
a few days ago, drying on a log. 

The Somme Team rousted them 
one cool morning. 
I love to do this work with friends, trading thoughts. I also love to follow up for later bloomers, alone in wilderness reverie. It’s all good.

This dead pile, near the trail, 
could be ugly to passers-by. I hope many will see it as an indication of the commitment that results in the whole being so increasingly beautiful, year after year.

In fact, 
I find five 
clover patches.

I map them 
and file it, 
so we can 
remember to 
check these spots 
on some beautiful 
July morning 
next year.

This one is 
great St. John’s wort, taller than I. 

Fat ovaries 
with five sticky stigmas on top of each... 
hiding under 
a tangle 
of pollen-y stamens.

I find bugs too. 
But I don’t try 
to photograph them 
with my little cell phone. 

To represent them, 
this is one of Lisa Culp’s 
recent daily masterpieces. 

What kind of strange flies 
are these? 
What’s their role in the ecosystem? 

I pass a skunk, 
a crayfish, 
a plains garter snake, 
and countless 
engaging bugs. 

But now it’s getting hot, 
so off I go to other work.

But hey! If you get cabin fever from air-conditioning, try mornings in nature. They’re pretty nice.
Post Script
Here are promised tidbits 
on American slough grass, Beckmannia syzigachne.  
The light-shaded counties show where it’s known from. 
Not many places in Illinois. 
Most populations are now gone. 
The grass is an annual. 
It’s adapted to something. Fire? 
Most marshes don’t get burned much. These at Somme do. 
We’ll see if it can survive here.

Illinois is far from the main populations of this grass. Our plants may have genetic adaptations that don’t exist elsewhere. At some point in history, human culture may need something from this plant that could save some other grass (for example corn, wheat, rice, or oats) from a devastating disease or pest. Or these plants may have some nutrient that could be bred into grains to help our food make us healthier – or smarter for that matter. 

So we’d be smart 
not to just let it 
go extinct.

The thoughts of a steward on a cool walk at the start of a hot day. Peace. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Why is this bird following me?

When you're
working in
an ecosystem
day after day,
many animals
get kind of used to you.

They treat you
as they would a deer.

In other words,
they don't pay
much attention.

But Lisa Culp
found this yellowthroat
to be following her around.

Was it trying
to be friendly?

Lisa is a steward
to Somme's 
important population 
of the federal endangered
prairie white-fringed orchid.

You can see the orchid 
in bloom 
inside the cage here. 

(For more on our efforts 
to conserve this plant, 
check out our blog 
"Leave Nature Alone?" 
from September 2012.)

For weeks, 
the intrepid Lisa 
has spent long hours 
of slow, detailed work 
in many of Somme's 
yellowthroat territories, 
caging, pollinating, 
and monitoring 
this extremely rare plant. 

In all this time, 
no yellowthroat 
has talked to her, 
followed her, 
and stuck with her 
as did the little character 
shown in these photos. 
What's with this bird? 

The yellowthroat 
is a warbler that is 
seen and heard daily 
in all three 
of the Somme preserves. 

It's easiest to find 
by listening for its song "Witchity Witchity Witchity Witchity Witch!" 

It sings off and on 
all day long, 
most often in the early morning. 

When you hear that song, 
watch for movement 
in the vegetation 
and train your binoculars 
on the first thing that moves. 

Look for the 
bright yellow throat, 
of course, 
topped off by a black mask 
with a gray highlight above it. Note the thin, pointed bill.

It's busy and curious, 
though normally 
a bit nervous and shy. 

One rewarding angle 
of yellowthroat watching 
is that it forages 
among the rare prairie 
and savanna wildflowers 
that we have come 
to learn and love. 

As it hops and flits 
from plant to plant, 
once you've learned to 
recognize them at a glance, 
the bird puts its little spotlight 
on species after species. 

Here it's on 
a bud-covered stem 
of "gayfeather" 
or "marsh blazing star." 
In a couple of weeks 
this stalk will be a magic wand 
of brilliant pink-purple.

The yellowthroat treats it 
as just a landing pad 
and opportunity to find 
bugs to eat. 

Here's "the  bandit" 
(a pet name for the 
masked yellowthroat) 
in the middle of 
a wild quinine plant. 

Like the blazing star, 
wild quinine was absent 
from most of Somme 
before we started gathering 
and broadcasting 
its seed. 

One time we found a big and beautiful moth that hung out on this flower. We wondered 
if it was specially adapted to it. We never saw it again.

It is fun and a challenge 
to learn to recognize 
all these rare flowers and seeds, and their animals 
and to be good stewards of them - to restore their diversity 
and health. 

We are inspired 
to think about the discoveries we haven't made yet - 
to imagine we'll find 
that moth again some time, 
and photograph it, and study -  
and who knows what surprises we'll uncover? 

Here the bandit perches 
on a dried stalk 
of saw-toothed sunflower.
The dead stalk reminds us 
of last year.
Ripening seeds 
remind us of next year. 

Each element 
that the yellowthroat spotlights 
reminds us of another facet 
of the complexity that we find 
so compelling 
about this intimacy 
with our ecosystem.

In many of Lisa's photos, 
the bandit is balling her out. 
Does this guy follow Lisa 
because his babies are nearby? 
It's likely. 
Many birds chirp 
for all they're worth 
when a big mammal 
comes near nest or babies. 
This time of year, 
the chicks may be scattered 
over quite a distance.
But each one deserves 
to be protected. 
He is bold in defense
of his babies.

Here he balls out Lisa 
from the stalk 
of the rough blazing star. 
This species blooms much later 
than "gayfeather."

By then 
the un-masked 
and subtly-colored 
female yellowthroat 
and her masked male partner 
will likely be working 
on their second 
nest and family. 

feed the chicks 
for a longer time 
than most warblers. 
They'll likely 
still be feeding 
and protecting 
the next generation 
when they start 
to migrate toward 
the Caribbean islands 
or Central America in fall. 

Here's a clue.

When they ball you out 
with a bill full of food, 
they're definitely wanting 
to feed their babies.

"Get out of here," he chirps. 
"I want to feed the kids, 
but I sure don't want 
to show you where they are. 
Go! Scat!" he says, 
as best he can. 

When he comes this close, 
it feels like he's being friendly. But it may be 
the opposite.

In her note that accompanied these great photos, Lisa wrote, "I didn't follow him ... he followed me." I know the feeling. We enjoy their presence so much that it's hard to say good-bye, though both the bird and I are relieved when an encounter like this ends. 

Lisa's work 
moved her away, 
and the bandit 
stayed behind.

What a pleasure, 
to be able to share 
these sweet intimacies 
with the blogosphere. 

Thank you, 
computer geniuses.
Thank you, America.
Thank you, 
Forest Preserve District 
of Cook County. 
Thank you, Lisa, 
for capturing 
all this richness.

Thank you, little bandit.

And thanks 
to everyone who 
comments on this blog, 
or passes it along to others, 
or just appreciates it.

It's nice to share with you.