Thursday, August 31, 2017

Somme Woods East - Progress Report

Parts of Somme East are now looking like this:
Cardinal flowers, great blue lobelias and sweet black-eyed Susans
bedazzle an understory that had been largely dead for decades. 
This richness, so far, just covers a few acres, in little patches, here and there. But the change is dramatic, when you compare to nearby areas that are as empty of life as they were for decades.
This area was similar to the one shown above - before restoration started. A few old oaks are present.
Few or no wildflowers - little wildlife. No reproduction of the canopy oaks.
Young trees and shrubs are the invasive and malignant buckthorn. 
Pull back from that first flowery photo, and we get this:
That big tree in the background is a swamp white oak.
The relationship between this oak and the herb layer is key to this ecosystem. 
The swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor), like the cardinal flower and blue lobelia, grows in some of the wettest parts of the woods. In the decades since the natural fires were ended by our culture, this tree has suffered. Its lower limbs were slowly killed by shade of invading pole trees. In a sustainable, natural (fire-maintained) woodland, this oak would have had enough sun to maintain life in many of those lower branches. (Technically speaking, it would have been a "woodland grown" tree - rather than a "forest grown" or "open grown" tree. These days, a woodland grown tree is a rare jewel.)

The amputated limbs aren't just ugly. The flowers in this photo aren't just beautiful. In a sustainable natural system (like what we're trying to restore), this sunny matrix would also support little, reproducing swamp white oaks among the wildflowers. The future of the oaks is tied to the diverse flowers, grasses, and sedges that form the nursery bed of the next generation. In contrast, on bare ground, fast-growing trees like cottonwood or box elder win out. Oaks thrive on challenges. Their thick bark withstands fire. Their large seeds compete in a competitive turf.

Equally important - the diverse plants are interdependent with diverse (now rare) animals.

As you may know, last winter we cut - and next winter we will continue to cut - invading trees out from under the oaks. But that's just the first step. Below, check out a photo of a bit of woods that had its big buckthorns cut in the winter of 2016/17.
What's wrong with this picture?
See all those little green seedlings and re-sprouts? They are nearly all buckthorns and other invasives. This year, they're a few inches tall. Within a few years, they'd be a few feet tall. Our next step is to prepare the ground for planting by herbiciding that pestilence of young invasives.

Below, you can see an area where the invasive sprouts have been herbicided.
With the buckthorn sprouts gone, this area can be planted with diverse seed this fall.
The above photo also shows a meter tape and a quarter-meter hoop. We study the results of various treatments. Here we are "sampling a transect" to follow the progress of the restoration.

If you're not familiar with "sampling a transect" - here's how we do it. We permanently mark a line through the woods. In this case, the line goes from tree, to tree, to easily findable tree. Then we put the sampling hoop beside the tape at the five, ten, fifteen, etc. meter mark. We identify all plant species present and estimate the area covered by each species' leaves. We record both. As you can see, taking the "before" data doesn't take us long.

The line, in this case, starts in an area where the main cutting and herbiciding has already been completed, and then runs through the area shown below:
Here, as in most of Somme Woods, you must fight your way through solid buckthorn. Here no restoration has yet been done. This is a true "before" sample. Here we record a lot of buckthorn.
Our first two "anchor trees" were white oaks. the next tree was a bur oak (above). This mighty giant still has some of its lower limbs - dead but still holding on. For a century, it has not reproduced. When shade builds up, the bur oaks are the first to stop reproducing. Their seedlings require the most light.
We record the circumference of each anchor tree along with the distance and direction from the previous anchor.

Since this is a progress report, two more photos seem needed:
Doll's eyes seeds reaching out of their cage
Since it's September, now at every fall workday we'll have one team gathering seeds and another cutting brush. The seeds above are reaching out of a cage that protected their leaves from hungry and over-abundant deer. Somme volunteers divide up the work. Some cage; some burn; some saw.
Doll's eyes seeds, bagged for action.
Some seeds might wait for decades to make it on their own, around our hundreds of acres. They need you! The hunter gatherer. Please join in, whenever the spirit moves you.


orchidartist said...

Just beautiful! Great-hearted, visionary community is key to the success of this work.

Stephen Packard said...

One note asked about the process of selecting which species to restore - and where? There are many theories and hypotheses on this. I submit that none of them are "right" - in the sense that everyone should follow the same one at every site. Instead, especially given the lack of certainty about the many questions we'd like to have answered as we make those decisions, many and varied approaches should be followed. I also submit that the volunteers and/or professionals responsible for a given restoration site should select an approach or protocol, write it up, record it in some way that others can access it, make sure it has all the approvals it needs - and stick to it. If a variety of approaches and carefully followed, in time we will be able to compare how well they fulfill various conservation values. One approach is to restore all the species that reasonably, likely were at a given site. Then ultimately let them compete it out. Somme has used a version of that approach for 40 years. Specific protocols were developed for the North Branch Restoration Project by FPD and volunteer staff, scientists, and practitioners over the years. They'e incorporated in the NBRP Seed Plan, site plans, and related documents on file with the Forest Preserves, at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and on line. I’ll try to post a summary on this blog when I can.