Friday, June 01, 2018

New Trail At Nature Preserve - Begins An Adventure

It's a trail through slow miracles. You can help by walking it. A variety of tentative experiments are under way here.

All explained below:

This preserve has no parking lot, no facilities, indeed, no features except nature - and now, finally, this trail. This preserve has some of the finest, rarest, and most sensitive ecosystem that survives in the eastern tallgrass region. People who hike there have often trampled remnant gems that are way too small and precious for that. Given good care, rare nature should expand and cover the site. Steward Laurel Ross and all friends of this preserve have long seen the need for such a trail.  

The trail first goes through a buckthorn tunnel. About a third of the site is totally unrestored, even though volunteers and staff have been working on this important site for 41 years.

But the first little bit of prairie you then enter is one of the highest quality parts - original prairie - never plowed, overgrazed, or blotted out by brush. Here you can see such rare and conservative plants as cream false indigo, prairie betony, prairie gentian, leadplant, and a long list more.

The white flags line this whole one-third-mile-long trail. They're temporary. After some foot traffic, the trail will be defined by the pattern made by our feet.
The next little section of trail (in the photo above, looking backwards towards the Post Office, where we started) has a good population of wild hyacinth. Just to be clear, this uncommon plant is actually not a prairie plant. It was planted here as part of the North Branch Restoration Project savanna seed mix, to heal a degraded area where brush had been cut while scattered trees were still present. The savanna species can be expected to be replaced with increasingly conservative prairie species, except near the trees around the edges.
The footpath necessarily goes through wetland areas that would become impassible mud in spring and after rains. We hope our simple log stepping stones will be practical. (As you can see, the trail itself doesn't yet look like much, but it's still easy to follow.)

Notice two low-cut stumps to the right of the trail. This area is a weedy mess. Very little prairie vegetation grows here - yet. Massive amounts of brush and trees were cut here by Forest Preserve staff and contractors as part of the Forest Preserves' widely praised and respected Next Century Conservation Plan. But stewards and staff chose not to buy seed. They're using hard-to-get rare, local seed, gathered by hand, mostly by volunteers. (Want to help? See details and schedules at the website of the North Branch Restoration Project.)

So, this is part of the adventure. The trail goes through original prairie, miserable weed patch, and various levels of recovery. Watching how the changes unpredictably unfold - over the years - inspires awe in many of us. It could for you too, especially if you know the species, or want to learn.

Soon you should notice a change to obviously more diverse and complex vegetation. Here, it was painful to place a trail that wipes out much that is precious. The trail is a cost that will help save the ecosystem in the long run. The big bunches of fine-leaved grass here are clumps of prairie dropseed - the most characteristic grass of high-quality prairie. Among them are rattlesnake master, wild quinine, bastard toadflax, and more than one hundred other now-rare prairie species.

Different plant species will be blooming along the trail here every week. This one is violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea). The rest of the large vegetation in this photo is weedy. Quality species will gradually replace it, over the years, given regular fire. But only from the plants spreading their own seed here - and gathered every summer and fall by stewards.
Stumps along the trail here and there remind visitors that much of this area was heavily wooded by invasive trees fairly recently.

Next the area descends into a wetter, somewhat brushy area, where the flowers in late May are mostly golden ragwort - a relative of the daisy. Wet prairie is often missed by burns under modern conditions, so it's more likely to have recurring brush problems. However, with good stewardship, the wet prairie will heal in time with a turf of specially adapted rare plants supporting rare butterflies and other wildlife.
Here a little prairie stream is crossed by an improvised bridge, the idea of Trail Co-Steward, Russ Sala. The bridge was cut from a large cottonwood that needed to be removed. A nice feature.
Here and there the trail passes near especially important caged plants. This one is a federal endangered species. It's not a good idea to list names of such plants on the Internet. So its name won't be listed here. But you can easily identify it from book or on-line when it flowers. Please help us in not advertising the presence of such rare plants here.
On the other side of the stream, the trail rises through what was recently a patch of dense brush. This is another area where you might want to follow, over time, the recovery of high-quality prairie - from about nothing.
Soon the trail passes by two glacial boulders. A nice place to have a seat and relax, listen to the birds, watch the sky, and let your mind entertain possible pasts and futures.

This burn scar reminds visitors that this prairie is a work-in-progress. Last winter, a pile of brush was burned here.

On the edge of the burn scar, another violet wood sorrel blooms. At least it did in late May. Soon it will be shooting its seeds in every direction - now with a chance for success, as the invasive brush is gone.
Another species that's common along the better parts of the trail is shooting star. But the May flora is maturing into seeds. Now time comes for the June flora.

During June, spiderwort will be blooming in fine prairie - and also here in a briar patch that was recently mostly brush. Both briars and brush are history, if all goes well.

Close-up of the spiderwort flower. The delicate on its way to replacing the thug.

What are these hole seen here and there along the trail? Snake holes?

Well, snakes do go down them. But they were made by crayfish, little prairie lobsters, that spend most of their time below the water table (which these holes go down to). But when it's wet out, you may see them joining you for a walk down the trail.

The photo above is a reminder of why keep your feet on the trail. Tiny seedlings of rare plants, that are hard to see, could be crushed and killed. The rarest adult plant in this photo is the purple prairie clover (fine bluish leaves, center right). This site deserves the intensive care it needs for now. Please don't trample.

Next the new trail goes through a patch of unburned prairie, recognizable by the dry thatch from last year, that's still there. Insulated from the sun's warmth, the growing season here started later. Some species that have finished blooming in the burned areas are still blooming here.

Another very rare plant thriving along the trail. Past bloom. Protected from over-abundant deer, and monitored by Plants of Concern (Chicago Botanic Garden) annually. Again - if you identify it - please don't advertise its presence on the Internet.

Here the trail rises up onto an artificial mound and causeway, that will help us bypass a wetland.

The mound and causeway were built during the Cold War for a radar installation, believe it or not. Feds donated the land to the Forest Preserve in 1978. The vegetation is now a mess. An attractive "weed" is the "dame's rocket" seen blooming here in pink and white. This area needs vastly more seed and burning, but seeding here has been low on the priority list.
From the mound, we get great views of the prairie, from this odd perspective. How long will it be before the mound is prairie too?

Here an old "footpath to nowhere" had been "closed off." We hope the existing simple loop will be easy to follow. But it needs some traffic to keep it that way. A second, larger loop has been discussed for the future, once this one is functioning well.

The trail was planned by FP ecologist Debbie Antlitz, steward Laurel Ross, trail co-stewards Russ Sala and Stephen Packard, and supporting stewards Lisa Musgrave and Eriko Kojima. It was installed on May 29, 2018 by John McMartin (who sawed those tree-trunk pavers), Peter Kim, George Westlund, Tom Dallinger, Eriko Kojima, and Russ, and Stephen. Here, after cutting brush stumps for the one-third mile, they reverse direction and walk the loop back, for the benefit of trail, and of course the pleasure.
A few of the log paver coins wait for the next rainstorm, which may teach us which areas need more reinforcement. Wood pavers and bridge were hauled by students from Evanston Township High School and Northwestern Lutheran Campus Ministry. Thank you, all.

Second to last photo.
A view of the prairie.
A special place.
Deserving special care.
Including feet that focus themselves off the precious remnant vegetation.
If you take a walk there from time to time, that would help establish the trail.
And you'd be so much richer. 

You could bring this trail guide on your phone - to better understand what you're seeing.

To visit, you park at the Northbrook Post Office on Dundee Road. Notice the sign in the northeast corner - and the beginnings of the footpath. (Please park in the spaces closest to Dundee Road, so as not to fill up the spaces convenient to the post office. It's good of the Post Office to let their small lot be used for the nature preserve.)
Last photo:
By far the ugliest ever to appear on this blog. This is what the entrance looks like!
Brace yourself.

Tick warning.
There are lots of them - this time of year.
Tall rubber boots can help.
Or go with someone you'd like to exchange tick checks with.

Thanks for proofing to Kathy Garness and Eriko Kojima.


Ryan said...

Thanks! Your timely photo helped me identify a native in our 'garden.' Actually, the question I had yesterday was "what is this pretty flower growing up from the cracks in my gangway sidewalk?" It's a sign of the extremely passive approach we've taken that a 2-foot tall flower can grow up in the sidewalk cracks before we address it.

The one surprising note - after your photo triggered me to run outside and check, the first blossom I saw had four petals, and I thought 'nah.' But looking more closely, all the other blossoms have 3, and in every other way it's clearly tradescantia ohioensis. I see on the wiki page that 4-petaled flowers are uncommon but documented in spiderworts.

If I'd done more looking yesterday, I'd have found the antecedents of the sidewalk spiderwort in an overgrown patch of the garden.

We have contracted to have much of the yard redone with native plants in a few weeks, but we've realized that some previous owner already planted natives. We have 3 species of trillium, wild garlic, blue cohosh, mayapple, bloodroot and jack in the pulpit, echinacea and monarda. I'm starting to wonder what was lost in the years we didn't pay attention. The Ohio Spiderwort makes 14 native species in our little yard. (16 if you count the asters and goldenrod that were gradually taking over for the last several years.)

Hopefully this bit of enthusiasm for native plants in a garden isn't considered threadjacking. I do look forward to walking the new footpath sometime soon.


Stephen Packard said...

@Ryan: Yes, perhaps "threadjacking" - but interesting. In our own yard we first planted some shade and sun mixes of local native seed so that we could donate to forest preserve restoration. Since then I've done this odd kind of yard stewardship that I call "gardening by subtraction." I pull out the commoner stuff to maintain space for the rare species we need seed of. The resulting "garden" is now diverse and beautiful. (At least to me.)

Ryan said...

There were other posts, here or at the other blog, that alluded to your using the garden as a seed bank. At some point, I'd be interested in following your lead. But we'll need to get good at the easy stuff first. It's not exactly rare, but some excess mayapple in our yard will be moved to help create something more closely approximating native habitat along the canal in Evanston. There are also 3 or 4 neighbors who keep asking when the project starts, so I'm hoping it'll be contagious.

I've since noticed an Ohio Spiderwort growing out of a crack between the foundation and the first course of bricks of our house. That's a hardy plant! Or a very bad sign for the house.