Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Drama of Un-named Pond

This post describes an adventure that I had this morning at 6 AM. Some people think these days are dangerously hot. At six, the world is so cool, gentle, and beautiful. If our culture could adjust our schedules, people could be so much happier. Certainly, in the early cool, I am.

I love the pond of this post, and it actually has a name.
But too many endangered secrets are revealed to use it here.
The Chicago metro area has so many human feet - that excessive publicity (and thus visitation)
risks death by trampling.
If you visit the Somme preserves, please stay on the trails during the growing season.

Un-named pond has sensitive wildlife - and populations of five endangered plant species: an orchid, a gerardia, a sundrops, a speedwell, and a grass. Two are among the largest populations: on the planet (in one case) or in Illinois (in the other). Un-named Pond has more than one hundred species of plants that are uncommon or rare. (We planted most of them - a complexity that's discussed below.)

Today I was happy to find American slough grass - an endangered annual with the impressive Latin name of, Beckmannia syzigachne. We don't find it every year.

This is one of the region's rarest grasses. An annual, it pops up in Un-named Pond
some years by the hundreds - and some years not at all.
Today I found it in 5 areas, for a total of 11 plants. 
People originally told us that the Somme preserves were too degraded to merit conservation resources. We argued that we had volunteer time that conservation seemed to have no other use for, and we could restore it from seed sources that were otherwise going to be lost to development or neglect. Thus, seed for the endangered slough grass that seems to thrive here came from a population that was subsequently lost. The same is true for the federal endangered "prairie white-fringed orchid" (or "eastern prairie fringed orchid"). The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service now considers the large population at Un-named Pond one of the world's most important.

When we started caring for this pond, it was mostly covered by dense cat-tails with little diversity growing underneath. Remnants of richer vegetation survived here and there, at the edges of the cat-tails, so we started swiping the cat-tails with herbicide to protect the biodiversity they seemed to be displacing. It turned out to be easy to kill the cat-tails without damaging the surrounding vegetation. At first we planted no seed. We waited to see what would come from the seed bank, but little came, especially in the deep water areas where the cat-tails were densest. Especially there, much of the current vegetation came from our seed mixes.
Where only cat-tails - and then bare soil - once stood, the pond now is now diverse and complex.

Does the photo above look like a pond? This pond is "ephemeral" - meaning that it sometimes has water and sometimes not. Always after snow-melt in spring - and any time after heavy rains, there's water and ducks. Following our recent hot and rainless period, it dried for the first time in 2017. Today it is moist but with no standing water. Its tadpoles have turned into frogs and are off hopping across the surrounding grassland.

Once we started seeding, following our usual practice, we tried to find, gather, and broadcast all species of seed that historically would likely have lived in the muck that faced us when we'd controlled the cat-tails.

Our experience has been that many species are slow to establish. So - while I'm here looking for aggressive invasives like reed canary grass - that need control - I keep one eye open to discover new successes. Soon I see bur-reed, for the first time in this pond, from a recently discovered population in another Somme pond nearby.

Newly restored, bur reed will be popular with the ponds ducks.
They prospect for its large seeds in the pond's muck.

Another success here is the threatened species, marsh speedwell. It was a dominant species in one nearby pond - but absent here, until after we moved seed here. In recent years, this speedwell has vanished from that other pond but is doing very well here in Un-named.
Marsh speedwell likes the parts of this pond that are shaded by oaks.

The quiet nobility of the little speedwell flower is shown so much better in Lisa Culp Musgrave's elegant photo.
Except for Lisa's beauty, above, all the photos in this post are from my cell phone, this morning.

Another puzzler is a sedge (see photo below). Tufted lake sedge is abundant in a similar pond about 300 yards away. In 2012, we'd killed especially large areas of cat-tail. So - in addition to our other mixes - we gathered a shopping bag full of tufted lake sedge and broadcast it in Un-named Pond.

A bagful of rare seed. Some years, this temperamental species produces none.
How many plants would result?
For many summers, I saw no results in Un-named. Then a few years ago I saw one plant. Every year it seems bigger, but there's still only one.

One big plant of tufted lake sedge (front left) stands annually alone, for now. 

It seems to make at least some fat seeds every year. Will the population explode some year when conditions are right?
This is a continuing story - for so many species.
Many ecologists believe that natural communities are typically diverse. Before I learned modern ecology, I used to think that a solid cat-tail marsh was great "nature." Now I see it as a marsh that is suffering - and poor for most species of wetland plants and animals.

But how much diversity can such a degraded marsh recover - through restoration?  Our stewardship of Un-named Pond is one experiment that may help answer that question. We have offered it seed of hundreds of species (if you count the various sunny-to-shady and wet-mesic-to-deep-water species).
Here - where cat-tail was recently herbicided - crow's-foot sedge competes with blue-flag, water parsnip, water plantain, and others. In some places where seed was not broadcast, Iris is now nearly a monoculture.
We were "less aggressive" or "neglectful" earlier in our stewardship of this pond. At first we controlled the cat-tails and assumed that nature and the seed bank would restore diversity. That didn't happen. Large areas became solid patches of blue flag iris or bluejoint grass. Then we had monocultures or "few-cultures" of those species. How much better is that than cat-tails? In this experiment, we're gambling on the approach of "pursuing diversity through added diversity." Over the decades and generations, various experiments may teach us a lot more than we know now.

Un-named Pond was naturally a savanna pond. The 1839 public land survey and other data indicate scattered and clumped oaks here. The farmer cut the trees on the north and west sides - and planted crops. Part of the recovery now is to get some trees back there. Seedlings abound. But, pruned by fire and deer, they remain small. I note that the bur oak nearest the north edge of the pond has had its top eaten off. A one-year set back.

Make note: raise the cage.
On the south edge, the problem was too many trees.
At one point, invading green ash covered most of Un-named Pond. We controlled it.
Now it's coming in again near the oaks - which are the only large old trees around this savanna pond. 
Today I flushed woodcocks three times. Recently it's been very hot and dry. Ephemeral ponds may be life-savers to them. In the first flush, a mother hovered with her distraction act. I knew babies must be near by. It turned out that these babies were fledged. When I finally started to walk carefully, watching each step, three chicks also flew up and away.

My third woodcock sighting was also of a hen performing her "distressed-looking" decoy flight. I froze again. Just yesterday I'd seen chicks too young to fly. But in this case, there seemed to be no chicks near - except the one dead one shown below. It wasn't eaten. I wondered if it had been stepped on, by a deer or a person. They're well camouflaged. Stepping on them is a serious danger.

It's mother seemed to be protecting it - but too late.

Some of the pond's rare orchids and gerardias, (neither in bloom yet) are vulnerable to trampling like that woodcock chick. I've seen massive damage from human feet here - apparently by people who "loved" the place or at least found it very interesting. We need bigger areas like this.  

We the well-intentioned stewards, sometimes, probably, unintentionally, step on and injure or kill salamanders, snakes, baby birds, rare caterpillars, snails, and other honored neighbor creatures. We feel bad certainly in the rare cases when we know it. But it's a cost that we balance out with the great help we provide and which, in the bigger picture, provides for vastly more successful seedlings and babies that would otherwise be replaced by the barren chaos of invasives.

Frankly, we stewards don't go into Un-named Pond ourselves this time of year, unless some management or monitoring requires us to do so. But we're happy to enjoy its magic when so required. If you'd like to help, you'd be very welcome.

So, let's end with a photo of hope:
See the empty spaces among the dense vegetation. These indicate where some bigger, short-termer species have died.
They also indicate examples of where some of the next generation of quality plants will take root.
We will continue to collect and broadcast seeds of species that may want to become part of the diversity here.
Our work is a mission - and an adventure - and also full of mostly inspiring surprises. "Stay tuned."
And if just knowing about the increasing richness of this pond (and the rest of the Somme natural communities) makes you happy, then you're a lot like us. Join us for a "workday" or a tour, if you live near by. Or, in any case, it's a pleasure just to be in touch, through this blog. Feel free to leave a comment.

(A more technically science-and-stewardship-focused post on Un-named Pond - that partly overlaps with this one - was also published today at


Anonymous said...

nature is so full of complexity and biological diversity. so full of life and genes. thank you for taking me on this journey through your blog.. its so easy to give up and yet you continue to push forward.. i commend you and thank you stephen packard. if anything is really worth saving it is nature.. i hope you stay strong.. dizzy spectacle

Anonymous said...

The Native Potawatomi of this region used cattail as one of their main staple crops and the Illiniwek for thousands of years before them. I wonder if creating a wild foraging license could allow for people to reconnect to nature through harvesting- bringing the cattail population back into balance? The money from licenses could go directly back to conservation, also creating a host of citizen scientists reporting to DNR on changing population dynamics. The opportunity could reify people's valuation of nature as a source of food and not just a source of recreation. It could also motivate volunteers to get out and pull out rhizomes with a little delicious reward! I'd love to see conservationists make policy choices based not on the fear of "potential chaos scenarios" as is common today, but to instead embrace change and the possibility of improvements to common regional practices. In some cases, our region's practices have actually become antiquated. Personally, I'd love to see a reduction of chemical exposure for volunteers as more and more science is correlating petro-chemical herbicides with very concerning health implications (like carcinogenesis and tissue damage).

Stephen Packard said...

I agree with Anonymous that creative thinking and initiative should bring people back into a fuller relationship with nature. Certainly one example might be "cat-tail licenses." In selected cat-tail marshes, people could hardly do much harm. The more cat-tail roots are pulled out, the healthier the marsh would be. (Of course, you wouldn't want to subject diverse marched to too much of this.

I'd say the same about deer. A well-thought-through and well-regulated program of deer culling would be of great benefit to the preserve. Licenses would allow it to pay for itself. Currently the taxpayers are paying a few sharpshooters to cull deer. It's important work. But so much more of it could be done with a regulated volunteer deer-steward program.

Anonymous said...

I'd be curious to hear what you thought caused the disappearance of some of the species you seeded into Un/named Pond at the other sites. Competition from invasives? Harvesting? Change in hydrology?

Stephen Packard said...

Thanks for the question about the loss of rare species at the "donor sites" where some of the Somme species came from. First example is the white-fringed orchids from a preserve along the Des Plaines. There the culprit was probably excessive numbers of deer. Second, eared gerardia: here explanation for the main donor site is unambiguous; it was bulldozed. At Sauganash, as I've heard it from the stewards, the endangered American slough grass was in as area where construction vehicles (connected to some sewer maintenance?) caused problems and which subsequently was allowed to grow up in brush for many years due to the political mess referred to as "The Moratorium." At other sites, fire-dependent species were lost to brush because of no fire. Most species of oak woodland, savanna, prairie, and wetland these days will die out without controlled burns, invasive species control, and other stewardship as you suggested. In recent times I haven't seen harvesting to be a major problem. Most people respect the preserves.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info...well your work shows that what once was lost can be refound or restored, so we just need to continue getting boots on the ground and fighting the good fight!