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
at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RICTPEFbRh8

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: http://woodsandprairie.blogspot.com/2016/05/after-miracle.html.

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:
http://woodsandprairie.blogspot.com/2017/07/ted-talk-part-2-politics-and-science.html

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


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