Monday, July 31, 2017

Rare People and Orchids: TED Talk Part 2

This post is about motivations (and some fun tidbits).
The photos and bold captions are from "Part 2" of the TEDx talk found

Why would volunteers brave cold and snow to cut down trees? Some people would much rather sit inside and complain about Chicago's weather. I've heard people say they woke up, looked outside, and asked themselves, "Am I really doing this today?" And yet, once the group assembles and starts to work, it feels so good.

Yet we worried about public perception.  With our best intentions,
we were changing landscapes that people had grown accustomed to. 
It violates the 'common sense' of most people to cut trees down in a forest preserve in any weather. New volunteers with little ecological background have big questions. We patiently teach. Science and monitoring show that hundreds of plant and animal species benefit from the thinning - including many previously declining tree species.

Might our cutting and burning provoke controversy?     
But when a Chicago Sun-Times columnist ran a series of critical articles, many people vigorously questioned what we were doing. For a detailed account of "The Moratorium" check out:

We reached out through  leaflets, media, guided tours, however we could. 
For protecting the ecosystem, to teach is as important as to act. This photo shows a recent tour. For four decades, we volunteers have led hikes, published reports, and inspired newspaper and TV coverage. Teaching in fun, positive, hopeful ways is our ongoing goal.

And the work progressed. 
There's something about team efforts. It's uncommon in most people's lives these days for groups to jointly tackle difficult physical problems. Here, six people have tossed quite a heavy log into the center of a bonfire, so the pile will burn without spreading out and sterilizing more soil than necessary. Some nearby volunteers often give mock-olympic grades to log tosses.

Over time, many volunteers developed special skills. No-holds-barred brush cutter,
Lisa Culp Musgrave
 on weekdays is a tennis pro and coach. 
Like many of us, Lisa often ends up smoky, muddy, and worn out - as we break for snacks during our weekly, winter, brush-cutting work-outs. We love January and February. (Many Chicagoans don't.) Experiencing in the stark, leafless ecosystem - thinking of what will be able to grow (and hop, and fly, and sing) in future summers - where we've ousted the invasives -  gives us powerful connections to the spinning Earth.
Inspired by Somme, she took up nature photography. First wildflowers …    
Violet wood sorrel grows in high quality prairies, savannas, and open woods. 

In "the dead of winter" we feel the miracle of temperate ecosystems. Under our feet - roots, eggs, and hibernators are dependent on our stewardship - as are birds that will raise their young here but now are on Caribbean islands or in the Amazon. As Lisa burns brush in February, she thinks about dragonflies and orchids she will photograph in April through November. 

... then animals. 
Tiger swallowtail drinks nectar from spotted Joe-Pye-weed - that we'd planted. The thousands (tens of thousands?) of Joe-Pye-weed plants at Somme are all there because we found and broadcast their rare local seed. As for at least some animals: "Plant it, and they will come."

Ruby-throated hummingbird (male) feeding on the nectar (and tasty insects) of Michigan lily. We didn't need to plant the lilies, as they were already there. But none bloomed. They survived as just a few leaves - until each year they were eaten by the deer or shaded out by shrubs (in the absence of fire). Good stewardship (including deer control programs by both the Forest Preserve District and the Village of Northbrook - and regular controlled burns) have resulted in hundreds of lilies naturally blooming every year.

Ruby-throated hummingbird (female) feeding on cardinal flower - another plant that's here (by the hundreds or thousands) only because we'd gone somewhere in fall to find its seeds - and then scattered them here.

She became a master. 
The coyote is an important part of the ecosystem. Without coyotes, excessive numbers of raccoons, opossums, and foxes devastate the ground-nesting birds. Coyotes have improved the balance for many species.

But what inspired her most was learning that she could physically restore needed plants – the base of the ecosystem. She started with the declining fringed gentian. Somme had very few – and those few were typically eaten by white-tailed deer. 
Many rare plants that bloom profusely at Somme are a heritage from Lisa and a long list of others (including Cynthia Gehrie, Jeanne Dunning, Will Freyman, Eriko Kojima, Paul Swanson, and Stephen Packard) who have been stewards for one or more needy species.
Lisa and friends protected the gentians with deer exclusion cages.
Then she broadcast the seed that now matured,
and soon the gentians were widespread. 
Lisa learned how to make and install the cages so that deer and voles moved on to commoner plants. More importantly, she learned the feeling of how profound a difference stewardship can make.

Lisa moved on to Somme’s rarest plant – the federal-endangered
prairie white-fringed orchid. We’d seen a few here and there, for decades,
but a very few, as the deer liked these even more. 
My mistake. It's listed as Threatened rather than Endangered.

Cages helped. But there was a bigger problem.
This small population didn’t attract its specialized pollinators.
Most flowers failed to set seed.
White-fringed orchids are pollinated only by hawk moths - impressive creatures that some people mistake for hummingbirds.

Lisa hand-pollinated, by toothpick, and taught others to do so. 
This toothpick has two pollen sacks attached. One has been pressed into the flower's sticky "stigma" and the stem on the pollen sack is being stretched. During this process, thousands of pollen grains are "impregnating" thousands of orchid embryos. A single orchid plant can make 100,000 tiny seeds.

Musician and computer wiz Will Freyman also threw himself into the work.
Then he used open-source software to develop  and improve ecosystem-monitoring programs that have since been widely adopted by agencies and businesses.
This is a new field. We contribute what we can. 
A generous collaborator, Will was a pleasure to volunteer with. But we lost him as a volunteer when he became a professional. That was a fine loss. We need excellence in both worlds. 

But for those rare orchids, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service was concerned
because, on most sites, fewer and fewer of them survived.
Illinois, the Prairie State, has the most in the world.
But by 2006, only 109 plants could be found in the state.
The Fish & Wildlife folks recommended Lisa’s can-do approach
to other preserve managers. 
That plunging graph of orchid numbers was a wake-up call. The species was in crisis.

Lisa's efforts did pay off.
By 2013, Somme had 460 white-fringed orchids,
more than four times the state-wide total seven years earlier.  
The goal of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is to get species off the list by restoring their populations and habitats to sustainability. We at Somme have helped by pioneering some techniques and training people from many sites in their use. If rare species and endangered ecosystem types are to live among us, we need to treat them as neighbors. We are learning.

This ends Part 2.
Thanks for joining us on this adventure.
More detailed and technical notes on Part 2 of this TED talk are at:

Part 3 will tackle "Bulldozers vs. Sensitive Ecologists."

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

What's Up in Mid July

We invite you to take a walk virtually (and listen in on our field trip discussions last weekend). Or bring these notes with you as you hike the trail.

To make it easier to find the numbered focal points if you bring this post into the field, the points are forks in the narrow footpaths. 

The Somme preserves harbor 501 native plant species. These include 17 on the Endangered or Threatened lists (ten present when we started and seven restored from other remnants) and many other uncommon or rare plants and animals. But more important that the individual species, this area and its stewards conserve and restore a rare ecosystem.

Somme Prairie Grove is one of the first places on the planet where an attempt is under way to restore remnants of a nearly vanished natural community – the black-soil bur oak savanna

A major challenge at Somme (and so many natural areas) is too many deer.
These beautiful animals are a natural and valuable part of the ecosystem.
But excessive numbers can badly damage the habitat for many other species.
We walk today entirely in the area burned this spring. This is much richer, more flowery, and more attractive to animals than unburned areas. Deer like the nutritious shoots where the fire enriched the soil. At one time, the mountain lions, wolves, and Native Americans knew to hunt there too. Previously, lightning (and, in the last few thousand years, indigenous people) ignited the fires which shaped these species and this type of community for about five million years. Now, things have changed; we have changed them; and we have to learn to be the stewards.
Michigan lily can be found in woods, wetlands, savanna, or prairie. In times of lower deer populations, 
a single stem may have ten or twenty blooms. This year most here had just one - a barometer of deer numbers. 

Here we start to see a great diversity of flowers and grasses. Indeed, we’re on the edge of a big patch of the unusual shrub, New Jersey tea, mixed with blooming butterfly-weed, wild quinine, leadplant, rattlesnake master, flowering spurge, and compass plant.

This tea has history. It got the name “revolutionary tea” when adopted by the patriots after they threw the British tea into Boston Harbor.  
 New Jersey tea 
Entomologist Dr. Ron Panzer says that New Jersey tea is a highly valuable nectar plant for many bee and butterfly species. 
Purple prairie clover (short pink-purple). Lead plant (long purple spikes). Rattlesnake master (blue-white balls).
Early goldenrod. (And the deeply cut leaves are compass plant.)
As we walk to the next point, we’ll pass through high quality grassland with an abundance of smooth phlox, prairie dropseed, and little bluestem. Then we enter a shrub patch we call “The Bird Thicket” – which has been a special focus of restoration in recent years. Birds that are regularly seen here during the nesting season include ruby-throated hummingbird, orchard oriole, kingbird, brown thrasher, yellow warbler, and indigo bunting.  
After a week, many of today's flowers will be replaced by maturing seeds.
But by then, other species will be in bloom. 
Bur oaks here were not reproducing, in part because deer ate them down to foot-tall shrubs. Exclusion cages (as above) protected saplings from the deer. But fire remained a challenge (note leafless outer limbs from this spring's fire).
With help, these classic savanna trees gradually surmount deer and fire pressures and become maturing bur oaks.
On the next section of the trail you'll start to see purple prairie clover (typical of fine prairies) joined by white prairie clover (even more typical of even finer prairies).
White prairie clover may seem like just another color form of its cousin purple.
But the two species are ecologically very different. 
In the early years of the restoration of Somme, we found very little white prairie-clover seed to broadcast, and the little we found didn’t seem to do very well. But in recent years the white seems to be increasing at a rapid pace – perhaps because it competes better as the restoration has continued to improve in quality.

A little further down the trail, look for a large patch of Canada milk vetch. 
Most species in these most open areas are typical prairie species. But note many charred young trunks as you walk south. Bur and scarlet oaks and hazelnut shrubs got cooked in last spring's controlled burn. Notice that they're all putting up new shoots from the base. They've been doing this every couple of years for decades. Sooner or later, some of the bur oaks will become trees that can withstand fire. These species are typical of savanna rather than prairie. Other common species here that suggest savanna rather than prairie include cream gentian, purple milkweed, Maryland snakeroot, carrion-flower, and purple vetch.   

As we walk toward point six, we look out over the ancient floodplain of the West Fork of the North Branch of the Chicago River. From here, long ago, you might have seen explorers or Native Americans paddling by in canoes. Today you see the Metra tracks that run alongside the river.
Butterfly weed with prairie coreopsis, lead plant, rattlesnake master, and black-eyed Susan.
As the trail starts to rise, it becomes more obvious that we're on the edge of the moraine. Savannas were especially common on the moraines, and many plants near this point may be more typical of savannas. These include Seneca snakeroot, grove sandwort, wild licorice, savanna blazing star, and rue anemone. None of these are now in bloom, but you may recognize the diversity east of here if you can identify plants by their leaves. 

Daisy fleabane (first slide in this post), dodder (below), and certain other species indicate opportunities. The fleabane is a "weed"(see Dodder seems to thrive where some "aggressive" species "irrationally exuberant" - perhaps because of some disturbance. For many years, we at Somme and others have spread seed where the presence of such species indicates an opening for diversity.
A golden vine is starting to wrap around this stand of mountain mint. It is dodder - a parasitic morning glory.
Dodder may kill over-abundant plants - thereby promoting healthy diversity.
As we walk to the next point, notice starry campion and wide-leaved panic grass in the open area – and then when we enter the woods: long-awned wood grass - an elegant grass with horizontal leaves and spiky seed heads.

Starry Campion
This oak woodland is "Vestal Grove" - the focus of the book “Miracle Under the Oaks” by New York Times science writer William K. Stevens. All the biggest old trees in the grove (indeed in all of Somme Prairie Grove) are bur oaks. This species has the bark and trunk best adapted to withstand hot fires.
In the woods you're likely to see butterflies - like this pearly eye.
We restore them too, as we restore the plants they depend on. 

Few of the woodland wildflowers are in bloom in early July. Starry campion and Michigan lily kick off the summer flora here. But more and more will bloom as the summer progresses. Thanks for visiting. Come back soon.

A more detailed and technical version of this walk can be found at: