Sunday, December 11, 2016

A Walk In Snowy Woods

We have different thoughts in snow.
It's a peaceful time, somehow, and we have peace thoughts.
It's also a contemplative time. Relax, have insights, make plans.

Yesterday, December 10th 2016, we had worked to improve the ecosystem's health. During the night, bonfire coals slowly burned down. Today they are still hot.
Yesterday's bonfire consumed scores of invasive pole trees.
Now the light-loving "swamp white oaks" along this stream will be able to reproduce.
Now blue-spotted salamanders, woodcocks, and white-footed mice
will have more plants (and prey) to eat.
Coyote tracks are everywhere. The woods seem chill and empty, but the coyote tracks say different. They eat the white-footed mice, squirrels, and rabbits - so much more common now that the oak woodland is recovering from the excess shade.
How do we know this is a coyote track? Three clues are decisive. Deer tracks would show
two hoof prints. These, even in the fluffy snow, show the five pads and a couple of claw prints. How do we know it's not a pet dog? Because there are no human tracks yet, and at Somme
dogs always come with their people. 

At least two coyotes had been most everywhere we walked. Their tracks told many stories. Very often (as shown below) their separate trails came together and the second coyote walked exactly in the footprints of the first, for a while.

Here the tracks cross the cold remains of a burn pile from last year.
It takes a few years before the burn scar vanishes into the ecosystem.
But what is that streak of pastel color we notice?
Urine and blood, apparently. Is the coyote sick? 
Loving the ecosystem has its challenges. We can't deny, we love the trees, we love the birds and rabbits in their clever hides. We love the coyotes. But if we love the coyotes, do we root for them to kill the rabbits and voles? It doesn't make emotional sense to hope the rabbits get away and hope the coyotes catch them. Do we want to bring sick wild animals to vets to cure diseases and wounds? We want to learn to love nature for nature. So, we love the rabbit, but we also appreciate the fact that the coyote eats some of them.

Many parts of Somme Woods have large numbers of downed logs. The coyotes like to use our trails, but their tracks often detour over to logs to check for hiding food. (We also found old brush piles, that some people would say should have been burned long ago, and other people would say should be retained for wildlife. But we saw no tracks around any of them, not rabbit, not mouse, not coyote.)

We found what looked like skunk or opossum tracks and followed them as they disappeared briefly under logs and into holes in old tree trunk. When we finally found the animal, it was indeed a possum. Whatever will it find to prey on in all this snow?

This cutie-pie "played possum" while Eriko Kojima slowly moved in to take this photo
 from about a foot away. Seems like a miracle that it can survive Illinois winters.
We quickly and quietly moved away to let it be. 

This downed and sectioned snag is a casualty of November's prescribed fire. It had been in flames, and the burn crew cut it down to put it out. (A standing burning snag is nearly impossible to extinguish.) Letting it burn would have been best, ecologically, but the spectacle was visible from a busy road, and complaints would have been a major headache. Old dead trees are good habitat and good for the woods. We try to protect them by raking around them before burns.

Downed trees catch fire also, under some conditions. Too many of them make the burns difficult; putting them out wastes time; there are too few people to get as much burning done as is good for nature. Public education should make some of these problems easier over time.

Linda Masters stopped by the Big Tree. This bur oak is probably well over 300 years old. Compared to this tree, the United States of America is a youngster. This fall, the trunk had a big "chicken of the woods" mushroom growing out of it (surviving now as a pale blob in the middle of the trunk, about a foot over Linda's head). The oak won't live forever. No young bur oaks are anywhere near by. It's been too dark for this species - the most light-lovingest tree of them all - to have had a single successful seedling in this part of the woods for (human) generations. We resolve to help it out.

Shrubs are crucial 
to many types of birds 
and other wildlife. 
Many shrub species 
being lost from most woods. 
We recently 
have increased efforts 
to plant, cage, and pamper 
wild plum, hazel nut, 
black haw, nine bark, 
and others - 
as we have helped out 
many animal 
and other plant species 
that are now back 
and holding their own 
at Somme.

To our surprise, Travis Kaleo added wahoo shrubs to our Somme Woods plant inventory. Eriko marked these with ribbons so we could find them in the winter, to cut excessive shade away for the next growing season, to cage some from the deer if necessary, and to protect them from future fires until they have recovered a healthy population.

Snow time.
A good time for stewards of nature.
Like all times.


Mark said...

Nice find on the Wahoo, and that big oak is magnificent. I have found but a single baby bur oak at Ted Stone and it is struggling, but I hope to fence it and see it grown large enough one year to deter the nibbling.

Stephen Packard said...

The half dozen wahoo shrubs are growing at the foot of the moraine near a giant swamp white oak. Other plants that are uncommon in most wet woods today (perhaps because of excess shade, or excess numbers of deer) include turtlehead and Jerusalem artichoke. Nearby where it's wetter is the endangered brome hummock sedge (Carex bromoides). Nearby where it's drier we find our only healthy population of hepatica. It's a sweet place.

Congratulations, Mark, on your dedicated stewardship of Theodore Stone Woods - another extremely fine preserve that inspires many of us.

James McGee said...

I have been reading "A Natural History of the Chicago Region" by Joel Greenburg and on pp. 336 the following is said about the massasauga rattlesnake.

"...One of the biggest threats to the species is that their grassy and ecotonal habitat is becoming increasingly wooded, but burning and other management techniques must be conducted with great care. For example, Anton points out that buckthorn, a nonnative species that is the bane of many land managers, provides important shelter to the massasauga. Complete removal of the buckthorn all at once would make the snake more accessible to predators."

Do you think basal bark application or frilling larger stems would provide an important transitional habitat that is lost when woody material is cut and burned?

Stephen Packard said...

James, what you suggest might help, but probably not much. When I've heard experts talk about the massasauga benefiting from bushes, they talked about the option to thermo-regulate by going into or out of the shade of the shrubs' leaves. But this is more of a courtesy response. My ignorance about massasaugas and their needs is profound.

James McGee said...

I asked John McCabe the same question. He indicated that making poaching more difficult might be a bigger benefit. Indeed, a dense thicket of thorny shrubs that were dead and did not provide any visual cover to poachers would likely work well for preventing that activity. The only times I personally go into buckthorn thickets is when I am doing control work.

I have been in massasagua areas many time in other states and I have never seen one in the wild. This is something that does not break my heart in the least. It is nice to know they are there, I just really would prefer not to meet one personally.

James McGee said...

I am not suggesting showing mercy to buckthorn. It is merely that buckthorn has so dominated the shrub and ground layer that the remaining native shrubs and ground layer plants are often few and far apart. It seems that cutting all the buckthorn (99% plus of all shrubs), burning them, and leaving a habitat mainly consisting of sparse ground level vegetation and large trees might not be the best transition habitat for certain species. In some cases it might be desirable to leave buckthorn as standing dead snags to deter people from areas. This is the opposite result that occurs from cutting and burning buckthorn, Asian honeysuckle, and multiflora rose which is that it makes the habitat more accessible to people.

Anonymous said...

good thinking, although restoration needs to start somewhere. Buckthorn thickets might deter tall humans who want to see things with their eyes, but does little to deter raccoons, skunks, weasels, coyotes or other things that might eat snakes.

Years ago, I was doing painstaking pre-restoration monitoring in a buckthorn thicket under oaks along the Des Plaines River (Zoo Woods). It was crawl-on-hands-and knees under buckthorn with bare dirt (oak leaves eaten up by buchthorn leaves) and extremely sparse plants. The highlight of that adventure was running across a single bunny rabbit, sleeping inside of a Dorrito's bag (the small single-serving size plastic bag). It darted out of that bag in a mad stressed panic, nowhere else to hide from ground-level eyes.

A few years later, after generous heroic volunteers cleared away the buckthorn and grass and sedges and wildflowers were growing, I resampled that same woods. This time I came across what was probably a family of young bunnies; I could never get a good look at them in the tall vegetation, but they kept hopping away nonchalantly under all the grass and leafy green shelter. Probably more nutritious than dorrito's, too.

James McGee said...

I was thinking the predators Joel Greenburg was referring to were avian. Although, thickets also provide cover from the mammalian predators you mention. Your rabbit example is a good one. In savanna restorations I rarely see rabbits presumably because the coyotes get them. In contrast, in savannas dense with brush and brambles or our heavily fragmented woodlands with a lot of snags I often see rabbits despite the coyotes. Of course rabbits are common and other species that specialize in savanna habitat are very rare.

Deterring people from areas is not only about reducing poaching. There is a prairie where I do some work and I leave the dead buckthorn standing. I know if I cut and removed the buckthorn from within and around these small pockets of prairie this area would quickly be destroyed by ATVs and off road vehicles. In my experience, if these people can get their vehicle through a thicket of buckthorn then they will drive through an area. I may need to let some of the buckthorn on the edge get bigger before I control them so the joy riders don’t destroy the whole place.

It is not a burden for me to leave the buckthorn standing. Frilling and basal bark applications are less work than cutting, hauling, burning, and then applying herbicide. It also requires less equipment. All I need is a chisel and herbicide.
I can see how someone who does not want to get down on their knees would not like making their way through a buckthorn thicket. I just kneel down on knee pads and move slowly from buckthorn to buckthorn which makes the work comfortable. I also wear a thick duck cotton coat along with leather gloves for protection from the thorns.

Leaving the dead buckthorn will maintain perching locations from which birds will deposit more seeds of invasive species. However, in a savanna restoration there are plenty of perches so this is not a big detractor.

One issue I have not been able to test is the difficulty of conducting prescribed fire when a thicket of dead standing snags is present. I expect the snags will either not become part of the fuel or if conditions are very favorable they will burn up completely. If the snags did burn this could create some issues for more urban forest preserves where smoke needs to be at a minimum. If smoke is not an issue I think leaving the dead buckthorn standing is desirable simply because of the effort that can be saved. However, I have not yet been able to convince the Forest Preserves of Cook County that this technique should be considered for a number of other reasons like public relations issues.

Deborah Antlitz said...

James, yes, avians (hawks) are major predators of snakes. They especially like to spot snakes on freshly burned ground. I have seen red-tails fly away with very large fox snakes. And the snakes do utilize individual shrubs in their neighborhood for cover. I once followed a garter snake through a shrubby field -- it zigged and zagged for the cover of each scattered shrub along the way; they were spaced enough distance I got the feeling it was a clear strategy for this snake and not just a random stimulus thing. Also, with a scattered shrub a snake can give any predator the 'run around' if it had the wits -- I have seen rabbits do this. And yes, raspberry patches are very good friends of cottontails in coyote land.

Also, in spring in woods (maybe elsewhere but I witnessed it in woodland) snakes will climb up into shrubs to help warm themselves.

On your musings on burning brush thickets. It depends mostly on the grassy tinder-like fuel around them if they will catch or not. The thickets I have seen over the years tend to flash and char and any flames or smoulderings that remain are small and scattered and at least nowadays probably not such a big concern. Whether the dead brush itself burns up depends on how old and dead it is; if it gets very dry and old bleached-white it can burn up very quickly.

James McGee said...

In the right conditions I am sure dead brush would completely burn up. I help on a burn at Shoe Factory Hill Prairie two years ago when the wind was gusting to ~30 miles per hour. When I walked up the hill to help put out a burning log on the savanna edge I saw where a line of 6 inch plus fence posts had completely vanished into thin air. I looked down and there was a two foot deep hole in the hard packed gravel where the fence posts would have been buried. There was no trace of the fence posts. They were just gone as if they had never existed. Maybe that’s one of the reasons the stewards were able to get the new fence they had been asking about for many years.

One worry about burning prairies with dead standing brush is the possibility embers could be carried beyond fire breaks. To avoid this problem dead brush, dead limbs, and dead trees should be removed with a good margin of error from fire breaks. However, in more wooded areas the wind is blocked by the trees and this is less likely to be a concern.

John McCabe responded to a question telling me that girdling will be discussed in the upcoming land management revision process. The problem with girdling is the shrub or tree then puts all remaining energy into reproduction. This is the reason I like applying herbicide to a girdle (frilling) for larger stemmed woody species. The stem above the frill typically dies quickly, in all but the largest trees, thereby preventing copious seed production. Also, frilling is a good option for smaller individuals when the weather is too warm to use Garlon 4 for less labor intensive basal bark application.

Beyond the aesthetic issues of dead brush and trees, there is concern about the potential of a dead tree to fall on a forest preserve patron. I don’t think this is really a concern regarding buckthorn, but this could definitely be a problem with some other larger species. I’ll have to wait and see if the FPCC decides to make any changes to the land management document. If not, I will keep frilling buckthorn but only on properties not owned by the FPCC.

A final concern is whether dead brush will inhibit the development of seeds that are sown. I don’t think this will be a problem. I’ve noticed when teasel is present it has no problem getting established. If there are existing native plants present they always do much better after the invasive brush is killed. However, I have not yet tried seeding species into areas where I have done this type of work to see how things turn out. This would be an important step to test. The results would likely be different for different sites and even different areas at a given site depending on how far the invasion of buckthorn has progressed and whether any topsoil remained.

In conclusions, there are still lessons to be learned in restoration.

Deborah Antlitz said...

I think seeds should do ok in dead brush. It depends on what the roots are doing. I read research once about fungi in the soil that fed on dying/dead roots and also favored tall goldenrod, and there would be more soil respiration while things decayed, which would have some effect on oxygen. maybe part of the reason for that 3-5 year 'pioneer' look on newly cleared area. At Spring Lake we have an imminent dogwood catastrophe. With burn-backs the soil bank (though this was likely seeds and established plants) came roaring back to full vigor in most areas. This was not dead brush though, just top-killed, so less of a root-rot situation. Other areas of Spring Lake (sadly still unrescued) buckthorn gets big and tips over in the soft soil, the root masses are SOLID meshwork of roots mixed in soil; so I imagine when that dies and decomposes it would have a major impact on soil properties. There is always something you can find to grow though.

The learning never ends :)

James McGee said...

I am pretty sure the area actually occupied by the roots of the buckthorn won't grow any native plants for a long time (~30 years). Where I cut buckthorn in a dry prairie 10 years ago nothing still grows in the area adjacent to the trunk. Vegetation has not expanded at all into the dead zone adjacent to the stump since I cut it.

The stumps and standing buckthorn killed a decade ago have lost the bark, but the heart wood is really hard and decay resistant. If a fire does not burn it up, the dead standing buckthorn will remain and hopefully provide cover for wildlife for a long time while natives are being restored.

I am sure the dead buckthorn will eventually decay. I just have not been doing this work for long enough to see the process to the end.

Deborah Antlitz said...

Dry prairie might be the key - slow-to-rot roots physically obstructing plant growth underground. How big is the dead zone? Inches? Feet?

Spring Lake Nature Preserve was a wet prairie/mesic prairie/sedge meadow matrix. Back around 2005 we cleared 30 acres of buckthorn so thick 1) you would walk under it head held mostly high, 2) stumps were so big you would not touch your fingers together reaching around them , and 3) the wetland soil beneath them was dried and cracked from the messed up hydrology. We mowed it out in winter. Come the summer many areas with lots of dead buckthorn roots/stumps sprang back with vigorous prairie grasses and sedges. . . some areas were stubborn dead zones for many many years. They seemed to be the dryer zones.

One telling thing . . . adjacent to this 30-acre buckthorn thicket, a few years before the major clearing that restored the hydrology, I had as a volunteer co-steward brush-sawed cleared a sizeable chunk of the thicket edge. THAT area went through the 'rough pioneer species for 3-5 years' stage, filled with stubborn annual weeds and wind-blown milkweeds, and pioneer species. What is very telling is that once we cleared the massive thicket around it (and restored the hydrology) all the RECENTLY restored areas sprang up with grass/sedge vigor, but that previously brush-sawed area REMAINED pioneer, weedy, slow to recover.... I speculate because it was exposed to growth when the water table was still messed up, maybe cracked a bit, maybe compacted a bit, maybe baked a bit. It has gotten better over the years, but you can still detect that spot out there by subtle differences. This suggest to me that moisture and treatment strategy does have a legacy, and that trajectories for wetness-assisted versus dry sites suggest different strategies.

James McGee said...

The dead zone around the stumps in the dry prairie area is a radius of probably 6 inches to one foot. I'd like to tell you how things turned out in the ephemerally wet areas of this prairie, but all the buckthorn that were cut and had herbicide applied resprouted and I am now trying to use frilling on them. I frilled some larger buckthorn just up slope from this ephemerally wet prairie on the southern edge ten years ago. All the buckthorn I frilled at that time are dead with the smaller branches decayed away and the main trunks still standing. I am now going through this stand and doing the same thing again to the buckthorn that developed since my initial control efforts. If I can control the buckthorn that sprout after clearing before they reach the berry producing age, four or five years, then I should only need minimal control for individuals that develop from berries brought in by the birds. No under story developed after the buckthorn were controlled in this up slope area, but that might have been because of some filling or other disturbance related to maintaining an adjacent fence line.

You can see the same phenomena of cleared buckthorn thickets not responding as well as older more widely spaced buckthorn in the prairie/savanna transition of the Shoe Factory Road Nature Preserve. I have previously suggested this depauperate zone dense with small buckthorn is because the non-native earthworms that seem to symbiotic with buckthorn use these edges heavily as they move back and forth from feeding areas to shady refuges. However, I have not studied this phenomenon enough to say definitively this is what is happening. It may simply be that birds like to perch on the edge of the woods, and excrete berries there, in combination with lots of light for the buckthorn to grow.

Debbie said...

Back to the blog topic "A Walk in Snowy Woods"

Winter (when there is proper snow) Is a great time to 'visit' the animals that during the summer put in only a brief fleeting appearance. Tracks tell awesome stories. By back-tracking an animal you can learn a lot about how it uses the landscape. What habitat is important for dens or bedding down, where is the good food, where it goes for water, the boundaries of territiories, how an animal interacts with other animals. A keen-minded steward would consider the habitat needs of critters when planning restoration actions.

James McGee said...

I wanted to give an update on the area where I have been doing girdling and cutting resprouts to kill invasive woody species. This area was burned yesterday, March 10th. Since the area is near a busy road it must be burned with a northern wind which has less favorable conditions for fire (cold). The areas of the site that were more level and where the brush was scattered burned completely. Areas with thick standing dead brush had a more patchy burn, most likely from the shading caused by the dense standing dead brush. The areas of the site with a north or northwest facing slope did not burn. The burn was done in the morning and may have been more complete if it had been performed in the afternoon.

I did not notice any of the standing dead brush catching fire. This is the result I was hoping to see. Denser areas of dead brush may flash in better fire conditions. I have seen live Asian honeysuckle do this when it has dense witch’s brooms. I am sure as the dead brush decomposes it will develop cracks and fissures that will hold fire and allow the dead wood to ignite and burn. By the time this occurs the brush may have decomposed enough that it will largely have fallen to the ground and may not matter.

I also returned to the area of wet prairie where I had previously cut buckthorn and put herbicide on stumps. While visiting this area I saw a number of stumps where my initial treatment had been successful. These stumps were still present but did seem much more decomposed than the stumps in the drier prairie area. I would say the stumps were over 50 decomposed after about 10 years.