Sunday, November 13, 2022

Sitting Still (listening and watching) in Somme Woods ...

 ... for three hours and nineteen minutes

 What I heard and saw from 1:15 to 4:34 pm on November 10, 2022


I’ve often wanted to do this. I’m curious. What happens if I sink quietly into the background? 


Usually I don’t have the patience. There’s some important mission calling: gather rare seed … or pull an evil weed patch. But today at 1:15 pm, I sit down quietly, partly to relax and recuperate. An injured knee protests walking. But it limped me into the edge of the wilds carrying a light lawn chair. I brought a book to read and settled in. More such details (and a few photos) at the end. But here's the data:


1:17. Downy woodpecker calls.

1:24. A goldfinch calls, just flying over. 

1:40. Red-bellied woodpecker calls. 


1:41. Far away, barely visible, a woodpecker flies by, appears to be downy or hairy.

1:42. Robin calls.

1:45. Downy woodpecker calls. 


1:46. Ten-point buck deer walks by, perhaps 50 yards away. Eats plant tops as he walks. Oh, now followed by a doe. Oh, now she's followed by another big ten-point buck.

1:56. Red-bellied woodpecker lands 30 feet to my right.

2:01. I notice the doe again, far away, running slowly and peacefully, with buck running slowly after.

2:03. Downy calls twice. 

2:05. Junco sings its pretty twitter call in the distance. 

2:06. Red-bellied woodpecker lands 15 feet to my left, pokes at tree with bill. 

2:09. Yellow jacket hunting in vegetation 2 feet away (the only insect I see today).

2:11. Hairy woodpecker calls behind me, then lands in dead oak 20 feet to my left and stays for a while, pecking.  

2:16. Junco sings, this time right behind me.

2:21. Spring peeper calls repeatedly.

2:46. Red-tailed hawk flies over. 

2:55. Red bellied woodpecker lands in tree about 100 yards away. (To identify it, I finally have a use for the binoculars I brought.)


3:11. Another large buck walks by, a bit more distant, but apparently heading where the other three headed.

3:24. Unidentified woodpecker tapping somewhere nearby, invisible to me.

3:25. Junco sings again. 

3:37. Downy calls twice in the distance.

3:38. Pileated woodpecker calls. Then lands on tree in distance. I don’t see it fly away.


3:39. Two crows fly over, silently.

3:42. Another pileated woodpecker calls, this time behind me. 


3:43. White-breasted nuthatch calls.

3:55. Gray squirrel. Seems curious? Comes to within 6 feet. But perhaps just relaxed and on the way to somewhere: it is traveling on the easy highway of downed logs. It does stop and study me a couple of times.  


4:08 Red-bellied woodpecker calls.

4:34. Official sunset – and official closing time for the preserve parking lot. Time for me to go. 


What and Why

I’m resting up because I have important work to do on Saturday. Interviewing six candidates for the Field Rep job that Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves hopes to fill. The interview is with six finalist candidates – during exploratory hikes through two needy preserves. I want to be in good enough shape to walk. 


High temperature of 75° today – scandalously warm for this time of year but certainly pleasant, if I forget about what that warmth implies. Perhaps the unusual warmth inspired the junco to sing a song more typical of spring - and inspired those late-singing frogs. 

The book I read is An Immense World by Ed Yong. By mistake. I grabbed the wrong book. Meant to read The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf. But they’re both good. 


My time is divided this way: I read a few paragraphs wearing my close-up glasses. Then change to distance glasses and look around. Then change back and read more. So far as animals are concerned, I see rather few in these three hours and nineteen minutes: fourteen individual animals of nine species (one mammal, one insect, and seven bird species). In contrast to my glasses-needing eyes, my ears function the whole time. Since I’m partly relaxing, I record only the highlights. The nineteen animal calls (from eleven species … ten birds … and one frog)  – if I recorded every little cheep – would add up to three or four times that many. I record just the first two or three from each species – and a few other repeats when I feel like it, mostly when I’m in the mood to put the book down. The most frequent calls are from downies, red-bellies, peepers, and goldfinches. For appreciating birds, I strongly recommend learning to “bird by ear.” Thanks to the sounds, we can feel wide diversity all around us whenever we walk or read outside or gather seeds or whatever.   


Today I’m less aware of vegetation. Plants don’t wander by or fill my ears. But I do jot down what’s with me where I sit – toward the top of a slight slope. The herb vegetation close by includes: Joe Pye weed. Virginia rye grass. Forked aster. Blue-stemmed goldenrod. Tall goldenrod. Wood reed. Sweet black-eyed Susan. Golden Alexanders. Hairy aster. And bottle-brush grass. It’s a young restoration, with conservative species slowly increasing. 

The few leaves remaining on the trees fall continually the whole time. Tree species at this spot are mostly red oaks with some hickories and basswood. All are fairly young pole trees. The old trees in this area are more meaningful: bur, white, and swamp white oak – not the skinny pole trees of fire-starved woodland – but with large, spreading limbs. The rare, natural, biodiversity-filled oak woodland we’re working to restore here will someday have these stately trees back in the driver’s seat. Well, I suppose, despite the oak’s “keystone” status, I should credit the grasses and flowers and animals and fire also with being in the driver’s seat. 

Seasonality of sounds

It impressed me greatly how sparse the sounds were. Minutes would go by without a peep. 

Summer listening is so very different. Insects and especially birds whoop it up mightily. At this spot, it would have been vastly more work (more fun?) to write them down. Three hours would have required many pages. The indigo buntings would be singing multiple times per minute, as would the red-eyed vireos and wood pewees. Beyond the four resident woodpeckers I mostly heard today, I'd be hearing flickers and red-headed woodpeckers along with great crested flycatchers, scarlet tanagers, wood ducks, soras, and others. I'd also be hearing blue jays and chickadees, which have not headed for the Amazon, but do mostly spend their winter time around the bird feeders of nearby suburbs. 

Birdwise, most of this ecosystem spends the winter by the Gulf of Mexico or in Central America or the Amazon. Rich symphonies of katydids, crickets, cicadas, grasshoppers, and humming bees retreat into cocoons, hibernation, or eggs, silent now. Active winter inhabitants include a few warmer-blooded birds, coyotes, deer, squirrels, humans, and a few more. But for the richness of this ecosystem, there's a rhythm, and we're now in a phase that in many ways is analogous to sleep. It's good, wonderful, and part of what makes temperate ecosystems as productive as they are. Partially suspended animation - and I like it. 


The scene is nothing special. Just Somme Woods from where I sat, read, listened, and watched. The diverse plants named above are in this photo, if not shown very clearly.


Downy woodpecker – its calls are the commonest sound in this woods in winter. A single syllable. Sibley’s bird guide has it as “a short, gentle, flat pik” (as opposed to the hairy woodpecker’s “peek … sharper, stronger, and higher than Downy.” Telling them apart takes some practice. There’s also a Somme post about Love Among The DowniesPhoto credit: Kelly Colgan-Azar


Blue-stemmed goldenrod. What it looked like in bloom. 

Being in touch with wildflowers in winter guise is a bit like being in touch with birds by sound only. Your mind fills in the color.


The spring peeper is a tiny frog with a big voice. In March as soon as the ice melts from the Somme ponds, large numbers of these little fellows make enough symphony to drown out airplanes and traffic. In fall, individuals may call on warm days anywhere in the woods. Perhaps they’re thinking about spring. Photo credit: Mike Dunn


The impressive Pileated - a dramatic crow-sized woodpecker. For our first thirty years, we never saw a single pileated woodpecker in Somme Woods. An individual showed up in 2019  – possibly in response to good restoration work. Photo-credit: r/birding.

The pileated also has a bit-part role in our Big Bird Year post.

In 2022 for the first time we started seeing a pair of pileateds. John Paterson observed them going in and out of a nest hole. But we never saw chicks. Some day? We can’t deny that we feel honored by their glorious presence. 


Sibley describes the call of the pileated as “a loud, deep, resonant kuk.” Really? How much help is that?! 


A great aid to learning bird calls is the new Cornell BirdNET app. You just turn it on when you hear a bird calling, and it tells you the species. Fun and truly educational. Forget kuk.

We Somme stewards like to share what we're learning and invite everyone to be a human member of this ecological community. For volunteer dates check out our Facebook page. We share on the Internet and in person. More and more of us being in touch with nature is good for people and for the planet.



Thanks to Eriko Kojima and Kathy Garness for helpful proofing and edits. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Preying Mantis - to kill or not to kill

"Tiffany is a bad-ass. She noticed a preying mantis and tore its head off."

We were gathering seeds for restoration at a Nature Preserve. One of us had conferred for a while with Tiffany, the site's Director of Land Management, and returned to our seeds group with the unexpected report. 

The large preying mantises that we often see are from China. We could call them an "invasive" or possibly a "naturalized" species. Tiffany (name changed to protect the possibly innocent) was reducing numbers of this predator to help conserve rare invertebrates in this preserve.

I've watched them for years - with awe, appreciation, and a bit of unease. I've seen them in preserves and especially common in my yard, which is devoted to raising rare seed for ecological restoration. Of course, the dense rare flowers attract pollinators, which seem to attract mantises. 

This photo includes at least seven monarch wings. Above them was a preying mantis, busily hunting for more from its perch on a rare wildflower. 

From time to time I had noticed suspicious monarch wings in the grass. And mantises on the flowers. My practice had been to respectfully maneuver the mantis onto a stick and transfer it to some other plant.

But today, I thought about Tiffany. 

Monarch butterfly on the (formerly) Threatened plant species, savanna blazing star

This time of year, monarchs especially flock to our savanna blazing stars (Liatris scariosa), a Threatened species in Illinois, at least until efforts like ours raised its status to the inspiring category: "formerly Threatened." Sometimes ten or a dozen monarchs mob the plants at once. 

Increasingly, these same plants attract mantises, like the two below, busily reproducing their kind:

It would seem rude or worse to interrupt, don't you think? 

And yet, below is the one I saw today ...

... the one above the scattered monarch wings, at a time when I was still considering the example set by Tiffany.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote: 
"Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement."  

I have to admit that I consider mantises to be miracles of evolution and deserving of respect and kindness. At least sometimes. As a steward, I kill buckthorn and sometimes even maple, to restore a rare oak savanna habitat. All trees deserve some level of respect, but, after thinking twice about it, we kill some to save other (threatened) life.

I'll also admit that my emotional and ethical self thinks - not just twice - but three or four times about killing animals. Yet I do squash mosquitoes and cockroaches. Conservation land managers "cull" or kill overpopulated deer, which is an important thing to do in the absence of other predators. 

In my yard yesterday, inspired or corrupted by Tiffany, I tried to pull off the head of the above mantis. Instead, it's body broke in two at the waist, which all the same had the same effect. As below: 

Or to show half of its remains even more starkly:
It meant no harm. Predators are not an evil. They are much-needed regulators that keep other species from malignant over-population. 

But how about alien or malignant predators? Do some of them deserve extreme prejudice? Gardners and farmers sometimes buy and distribute mantises as non-chemical insect control. It makes sense to develop methods of pest control that don't depend on dangerous chemicals. 

Do agencies have protocols or policies on this kind of thing? I felt I could get away with being the predator on this one in my yard, especially considering the circumstances. But what about in the forest preserve where I'm a steward? I asked one person who said, absolutely not: No volunteer is authorized to kill any animal. But, I wondered, what about wood ticks and deer ticks? I kill them when I find them. My friend Sai Ramakrishna found one that had travelled home with him and brought it back to the preserve, not wanting to abandon it in some possibly lethal habitat. He respects their lives in ways that I apparently don't. Perhaps some people could help develop improved ethical principles to help balance out the goods and evils here? 

As with many questions, we may be in the early stages of figuring this one out. 

Kristen Frentzel of the Brandywine Conservancy thoughtfully recommends trashing Chinese mantis egg masses here. She states that the big Chinese mantises have diminished numbers of the smaller, native Carolina mantis. The egg masses of the two species are easy to tell apart. I've only ever seen one Carolina mantis egg mass, despite seeing at least hundreds of Chinese mantis egg masses. Of course, I haven't looked seriously. 

Perhaps the Carolina mantis played an important role in our ecosystems - and perhaps the Chinese mantis plays a destabilizing one? Or perhaps like the European earthworm and fragmentation it's just a fact of life?  

It sure would be interesting if someone were to study the overall impacts of reducing Chinese mantis populations, although it would be insanely difficult.  

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Minor Adventure With A Deer

I had been scything "thugs" - aggressive plants - that can derail the recovery of biodiversity. 

It's complicated; let's forget that part for now.

To put it differently, I was working quietly in the ecosystem, chopping down some plants while protecting other dense, beautiful vegetation. The work is compelling and meditative in a fun, relaxing kind of way. Looking up to check a sound, I'm face to face with a young deer.

She was about 10 feet away. Why so close? Curious? Or friendly? Whatever, many deer treat us this way, when we're focused on something else. 
I sometimes talk with deer when they approach. Not that I think they understand my words, but it seems neighborly to speak in a calm and lighthearted way, and I suppose my words become meditative thinking on another level. 

In this case I said, "Well, thanks for joining me. I suppose you focus so much on these plants that you can't help wonder what I'm doing with them." She kept moving, but not getting closer or farther away. "Are you going to walk a circle around me?"
Indeed, she did. I went back to work. She ate as she walked. I explained that we were in this together.

"You'd be happy if you understood what I'm doing. Without this so-called 'stewardship' - this open oak woods would soon be dense with tall goldenrod and the other thugs, none of which you like to eat." It's true. She can't eat most of that we cull. Thuggish plants tend to be toxic to her. So we're on the same side, in that sense.
She doesn't respond verbally, of course. But she speaks with her presence. Indeed, she does travel a full circle around me. Staying close. Eating and joining in the refreshing shade on this otherwise warm day. 

She's in the Shooting Star zone of Somme Woods. This area was dense buckthorn seven years ago. Little sunlight penetrated. There was little food here for deer or anything else. But rather rare and conservative shooting stars survived here in large numbers. So we prioritized this area to cut the brush and restore the sedges, grasses, wildflowers, and shrubs that the buckthorn had shaded out. And of course, we restored fire

The plants blooming in this photo are sweet black-eyed Susan (yellow) and great blue lobelia, But she and I are standing among more than one hundred uncommon species that are here because we cut the buckthorn, controlled the invasive thugs, and planted restorative seeds. We both feel good about this place. 

If you know your plants and look hard at these photos you can also identify tall coreopsis, wood reed, Virginia rye grass, and riverbank rye. Knowing this area, I also feel in the presence of Ridell's goldenrod, willow aster, fringed gentian, gayfeather, and the Threatened species Viola labradorica - most of which she'll eat - not too much I hope. 

By this last photo, the doe has traveled a circle and a half around me. It's been good. But I've finished my work in this spot and drift away, finding more thugs to scythe. At some point I notice that she has headed in some other direction too. Wild nature is like this. 

Friday, August 12, 2022

What Did Trees Look Like? (and Woods for that matter)

Our trees. The trees of the tallgrass heartland. 

Not artificial trees, but the trees of natural ecosystems. 


They were trees of fire – part of a richness that's mostly gone now, but with the ecological restoration of oak woodlands, they’re coming back. And for them to do so, it may be important for us to understand them – in part so that our sense of “successful management” doesn’t “enhance” or disfigure them in a misguided direction. (Some people complain that trees in nature don't look like trees in a park or arboretum.) 


Only recently have we started burning wooded ecosystems, and their recovery is in an early stage. There were no "nature photographers" to leave us model images. Perhaps artists who saw remnants of nature can help us learn what to look and hope for. The drawing below of a real bur oak is by Adolph Hoeffler in 1852. The tree remembers and reflects aboriginal times. Its character and history are written all over it. The lower branches were burned off long ago.

Notice that, even with a sensitive artist like Hoeffler, the twenty or so other trees in the drawing get increasingly ill-defined as they recede into the distance. They become closer to “standard trees” – as a kid would draw.


Hoeffler’s real tree was clearly a savanna tree. Oak woodland trees were probably somewhat different, though also dependent on fire for their nature. It stirs our minds to look at the renderings of ancient real trees. 


One early painter of the Native American landscape was George Catlin. He actually lived for years among the tribes and nations to record their likenesses and ways. He never really drew a tree, but he documented the landscape. In the 1832 painting below …

… Catlin is documenting a Native American with a rifle shooting at some others. The trees do not look all that real. But the natural landscape looks thrillingly real – grassland dominating heights and slopes, scattered savanna trees here and there, little “draws” or “ravines” with varying collections of trees or shrubs, floodplain islands heavily wooded, a prairie edged by a line of trees along the right edge of the river. 


In another painting, The subject is “Blackbird’s Grave” – but this time Catlin gets even more gloriously carried away by the landscape.

A detail of this painting …

… includes a rare example of a landscape artist bothering with the flowers. Biodiversity conservationists are thrilled to see them. On this day, it seems rich biodiversity thus revealed itself in the savannas and wood edges. On some other day, the prairie likely would have been bejeweled too. Once again, the trees look wrong, with ridiculously thin trunks, but their placement on the landscape looks like nature.


The rest of this post focuses on paintings by Albert Bierstadt, from the mid 1800s: 


Here we’re in a woodland. There are few shrubs or small trees. Early travelers described such open woods as the rule in the tallgrass region. The woodland oaks were said to reproduce only sporadically.


Prairie and savanna at the edge of a woodland. The outermost tree is dead, likely killed by fire. The next tree has all lower limbs burned off. The next four trees have lower branches re-growing. Below them is an apparent hazel ruff. For more on that, see the next painting. 


In the above detail from a larger (mostly open grassland) scene, two trees are contrasted. To the left is the classic savanna tree with just a few lower limbs. To the right is a spreading tree with a hazel ruff beneath. A “ruff” is a thicket of hazelnut shrubs that gets its name from those high, flat-topped Elizabethan collars. Every fire would burn off the hazel (which is very sensitive to fire but a champion re-sprouter). Then following a couple of years without fire, the flat-topped ruff would grow. Further to the right is another grove, without hazel. Perhaps the oak with the ruff grew in a wet depression that was often spared from fires. 


The next painting is from the Yosemite valley, farther west. The same fire-pruned trees are present. In this case, careful studies documented how the fire-adapted ecosystem declined during the years when the Park Service excluded fire - and how it has started to recover under prescribed burns. Changes were easy to document in this scenic scene, because it was very much photographed from the earliest days of photography.  

Bierstadt found all his wild nature well west of the Tallgrass Region, where the vast natural landscapes were already gone. But similar fires maintained similar trees. The fires in the tallgrass region could burn higher and hotter because the grasses grew higher and thicker thanks to more plentiful rain. Carefully controlled fires today mostly burn lower.  


Two grand old survivors. On the right is a tree that has recovered, and suffered, and recovered again, for centuries. 


The next Bierstadt painting, "The Emigrants," shows settlers heading west:

The artist paid most attention to people, cattle, wagon, cliff, and sunset. But he loved real trees. The sunset sanctifies a nobility he recognized in the bones of their ecology.  

A last painting is one that sold for $486,400 in 2005 at a Christie’s auction. Bierstadt does not compete with Andy Warhol or Jackson Pollock. His work was less about art and more about nature. We share his reverie. Very likely there were scenes much like this in the tallgrass region, even if Albert Bierstadt found his models farther west. Original nature was beautiful everywhere. In spring, much of flat Illinois was ponded. 

Those big old trees sure look like oaks. I wish we were able to visit such a place. With good restoration and conservation, some day we could.  


George Catlin quit his lawyer job and hurriedly learned to paint in order to document Native American life. He began traveling and painting in 1830 in the company of William Clark (of Lewis and Clark). He went out again on his own four times between 1830 and 1836 – staying carefully beyond "the frontier," where warring between Native Americans and Euro-Americans made travel dangerous. Peaceful villages welcomed him. His documentation of aboriginal America is a great contribution and deserves to be better known.

Adolph Hoeffler is described on the Internet as "an itinerant artist" who came in 1848 from Germany and spent time in the American midwest and in Cuba. 

Albert Bierstadt, a formally trained artist, first travelled west in 1859 with a surveyor to paint wild scenes while they still existed. We are indebted to him. 

Thanks to Christos Economou and Eriko Kojima for proofing and edits. 

Friday, June 17, 2022

The Unexpected Discovery of a Real Oak Woodland

I woke, as if from a dream (a bad dream). The photos and plant list suggested a far richer woodland than I’d ever seen - but for which I had long looked. It had recently been bulldozed, in part. But – more important – the treasure mostly still exists in this world. Botanist Dan Carter called the site "jaw-droopingly intact." Conservationist Eriko Kojima, on seeing it for the first time, was so blown-away she declared that she "wouldn't sleep for a week." 


Oak woods had seemed dull. Compared to prairies, savannas, or fens – these days they excite few natural areas conservationists. The word biodiversity is currently hot; it invokes the tropical rain forest, the prairie white-fringed orchid, coral reefs - but not woods.


For context, let’s revisit the “discovery of the prairies and savannas. Prairie consciousness came only in recent decades, when John Curtis, Aldo Leopold, May Watts, Robert Betz and a few others opened our eyes. (See Endnote 1: The Re-discovery of Nature.) Now we know that original prairie remnants are extremely rare and rich. If you’ve never had the experience, it’s worth learning to identify the plants and to perceive the structure so you can truly see one. An original prairie is strikingly superior in plant and animal biodiversity to degraded remnants or restorations. We’re learning to care for and expand remnants, but a reconstruction is nothing like an original. 

The discovery of the savanna was unexpected and yet more recent. Even in the 1970s, the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory essentially didn't find them, in part because they're rarer than the prairies and in part because they hadn't yet learned what to look for. 

So now for true remnant woodlands: many of us had sought them for decades. Did woods of high quality still exist? Writings by Jerry Wilhelm and others suggested that they should and perhaps do. But where were they?  Can we visit and study them? And now - will the "discovery" and recognition of the quality of Army Lake Woodland go down in history? I hope it does. How big a discovery is it? Individual endangered species are under various circumstances variously somewhat protected by laws, regulations, and standard practices. But – rarer and more important – a very high quality woodland ecosystem is not so protected. (See Endnote 2. Learning from Army Lake.)


One of the photos that seemed impossibly rich for a woodland. Largely conservative and rare plants make up this turf, including yellow star-grass, robin’s-plantain, forked aster, wood pea, veiny pea, wood betony, low false bindweed, sky-blue aster, wood rush, Penn sedge, running savanna sedge, and blue-eyed grass.
(2016 photo by Dan Carter)

Most woodlands today, if they have any quality at all, impress people who care by their dense displays of common spring ephemeral flora. In contrast, Army Lake Woodland has dense, diverse, rare spring, summer, and fall flora that is principally not ephemeral. Because of grazing or excessive shade at some point, most woodlands have lost most conservative plants - especially those of summer and fall - as well as the other biota associated with them.  (See Endnote 3.)

Few heard of Dan's 2016 discovery the time. Further documentation and analysis was needed. People are busy. The site was supposedly secure in the ownership of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR). But then came the bulldozers.

“A gut punch ... a failure ... a hill worth dying on.”

I personally heard about the site in 2022 when Christos Economou sent me a link to a remarkable 2020 blog post by the perceptive Dan Carter. I didn't know the man. Later, in response to inquiries, Dan expressed two regrets: 1) as a scientist, he regretted that he wrote that post when he was emotional with anger at the destruction; 2) as a person, he wished he'd been more outspoken in defending the site from development, though it would likely have cost him his job. Many eco-experts work for public agencies, or otherwise get funded by them, or just need to cooperate with them. They speak calmly. When the damage came, it was worse than Dan or his colleagues expected. Dan called it "a gut punch." In retrospect a battle to save this woods would have been "a hill worth dying on." (See Endnote 4: Politics.)

Central to what makes a Grade A prairie remnant striking is the density and diversity of rare plants. When Dan Carter was asked to evaluate Army Lake Woodland as a potential site for a boat launch, he found a woodland as rich as a remnant prairie. (See Endnote 5. Plant Species List.) The plants are important in themselves, but they're also the best indicators of full biodiversity that includes the invertebrates, fungi, bacteria and other biota that are principally associated with true, rich remnants because those organisms rely on the plants. . 


Army Lake Woodland had a substantially more diverse and conservative woodland community than is known anywhere else in southeastern Wisconsin (perhaps anywhere in Wisconsin or northern Illinois?). So, how could it get bulldozed by a conservation agency, when that boat launch could have been put on many other spots on the shore of Army Lake? Recommendations were not followed. Insufficient advocacy and public concern emerged. About a third of our best woodland remnant was destroyed. That's the bad part. But, again, two-thirds of this gem and quite a bit more restorable remnant still exist. 

Next Steps 

In the conservation of small remnants, there are typically three values and associated goals:

1. Save, restore, and study what's there.

2. Expand the size of the remnant, if possible, as small plant and animal populations are vulnerable.

3. Use seed and knowledge to restore larger areas. 

1. Save, restore, and study

An anticipated program of restoration management is crucial, as increasing shade and invasives threaten more and more quality. The site has to date received no invasives control and no prescribed burns. WDNR staff resources are stretched thin and deserve higher appropriations. But volunteer stewards could carry a lot of the load on this small site, if properly facilitated and empowered. Needed stewardship would likely lead to additional species emerging, knowledge, and insights. 

2. Expand

The high-quality remnant biota could be restored into poorer-quality adjacent areas. A first step that could start any time would be invasives control. Crown vetch has recently been discovered along the boat launch access road. Many dangerous invasives are there in small numbers. They should go soon. Some native species now cast damaging amounts of shade, in the absence of fire. Regular controlled burns are a must. Many managers would recommend annual burns of half or more of such a site, at least while it's in the "intensive care ward" stage.  

3. Use seed and knowledge to restore larger areas. 

Can-do management and restoration of Army Lake Woodland would benefit other nearby remnants (and needy oak woodlands throughout the midwest), in part by what could be learned here in the next few years. Also, many nearby areas would benefit from seed from Army Lake, especially once it has recovered overall quality.    

Most of the diversity on the island survives where over-growth by brush has been limited, perhaps due to the intense competition of diverse grasses and wildflowers.
If you’re tempted to take a look at this site, I don’t blame you. But please don’t trample such a tiny, vulnerable, precious remnant. You can pretty well observe what’s important through the fence (that was erected to protect it from boat launch and beach traffic) and on the unfenced half of the island. If you have a serious reason to study the flora and can’t restrain yourself from slipping through the fence, a little fishermen’s trail runs from the fence to the east side of the island. Perhaps some people could walk carefully on that? 
Additional views of the rich flora of Army Lake Woodland are below: 
Blooming in the center of this photo is the formerly common pale vetchling with its cream-colored blossoms. Also in bloom here are wood betony (yellow), shooting star (white), and wild geranium (pink). 

In bloom, Carolina vetch, blue-eyed grass, and wood rush. In bud: false dandelion. Prominent foliage: shooting star, bastard toadflax, and wood betony.

Blooming: yellow star-grass and robin’s-plantain. In bud upper right: Maryland sanicle. Identifiable by their foliage: bastard toadflax, woodland milkweed, NewJersey tea, northern hawkweed, showy goldenrod, white lettuce, false Solomon’s-seal, sedges, a white oak seedling, and bracken fern. 

Note on bracken and soils: Many ecologists these days expect bracken on sandy soils, but Army Lake Woodland soil, where exposed by bulldozing, is not sandy. Sand savannas and woodland remnants are much more common than on rich soils, perhaps because invasives take over more slowly there. Soils exposed by the bulldozing at Army Lake are not sandy. The biodiversity of rich soils survived here for other reasons.
Viewed through the fence that now somewhat protects the woods: alumroot, shooting star, blue-eyed grass, wild geranium, and pale vetchling. In seed on right is common dandelion; it's here because the site gets random trampling stress, which should be minimized. 

Endnote 1. What is original nature?
For most of human history, the concept of "nature" was a foggy one, at best. More often nature was something poets said "Oh my!" about in flowery language. More recently, as real nature was slipping away, it needed to be understood and defined.

The seminal Illinois Natural Area Inventory (INAI) of the 1970s was considered by many the most authoritative theoretical and practical approach to defining and conserving true nature in its various forms. Soon, as a result, Illinois protected most of its surviving high quality prairie remnants. They were priceless ecological heritage that had gone unrecognized in part because it had long vanished from productive lands over most of the U.S. and, arguably, the human-occupied world. But the Inventory did much less well on the fire-dependent oak communities. In the 1980s, conservationists figured out how to recognize savanna remnants and begin restoring them to high quality. Only in 2011 did oak woodlands get formally recognized as a category separate from maple forest. Conservation and restoration of oak woodlands is much less advanced than for prairies and savannas. 

Like Illinois, Wisconsin has been in the forefront of natural areas conservation, thanks to John Curtis, Aldo Leopold, The Prairie Enthusiasts, and strong communities of professional and volunteer conservationists. As with the savannas in Illinois, the long overdue discovery of Army Lake Woodland provides insights that suggest how to similarly upgrade biodiversity conservation for oak woods - quality recognition, prioritization, and restoration. 

Endnote 2. Learning from Army Lake
This site is now being used by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and others to develop new oak woodland assessment tools. This blog hopes to report on that effort and other Army lake learning, when there's something to report. 

Braving a light rain in June 2022, participants in improving tools for woodland evaluation included, clockwise from the foreground (back view, in red) Ryan O’Conner (Inventory Coordinator, WDNR), Dan Carter (The Prairie Enthusiasts), Brian Miner (Southeast Wisconsin Land Steward, The Nature Conservancy), Matt Zine (Habitat and Management Specialist, WDNR), and Pete Duerkop (District Ecologist, WDNR). 

Endnote 3. Why does this tiny gem still exist?
The site is only about 1.6 acres and was formerly a semi-island. If this find is as important as it seems, the likely reason is that a tamarack swamp separated it from adjacent uplands, and for that reason it escaped the heavy grazing that degraded the biodiversity of most woodlands. The intervening marsh is narrow enough and flammable enough that prehistoric fires could well have spread across or jumped it. But the site has not been known to burn in recent years. The dense diversity may have helped slow the invasion by brush. Higher-quality natural area are somewhat more resistant to invasion by species that would degrade them. 

Endnote 4: Politics
Both professionals and volunteers struggle with the balance between saying too much (thus making enemies) and saying too little (thus being ignored). When Dan Carter assessed Army Lake Woods for the boat launch, his job was with the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. In his later post on what happened, he wrote:

"I contacted some local stakeholders and advised them of a public meeting (listening session or some such thing) about the launch, warning about potential impacts to something precious and irreplaceable, and I promptly got an upset phone call from the property manager (though I appreciate him not going straight over my head like the Milwaukee County Parks Natural Areas Coordinator did a few years later). In hindsight, I kind of wish he had called my boss. It might have freed me up to more strongly oppose what was about to happen."

"What happened at Army Lake wasn’t just wrong, it was insane. Really, the forked aster was the only thing there with protected status that might have helped it, but that’s also insane, because communities support rare species; it’s not the other way around."

As Dan points out, the kind of public support that might have made the stakes clearer to decision makers – perhaps to a point that Dan would not have felt his job in jeopardy – was lacking. A strong constituency for Army Lake Woods’ biodiversity might, in fact, have allowed conservationists to feel empowered to look for creative potential solutions. A key question is, how do we caring conservationists build such constituency? 
Public agencies are necessarily political. That's not a bad thing. "Politics" is another way of saying "democracy." Compromises and trade-offs have to be made. In challenging cases, the responsibility lies not just on the agency employees but on the whole conservation community. At one point decades ago, the entire Illinois Nature Preserves Commission staff got fired (its budget zeroed out) in part because of failures to compromise. A wise and valiant participant in that struggle, Jerry Paulson, the day-to-day director at that time, wrote a comment on this post (see below) that ended: "Public employees who speak-up to protect nature are true heroes! But, they can't be expected to do it all alone. Every state needs a Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves or The Prairie Enthusiasts to advocate for nature." 

Endnote 5: Army Lake Woodland Plant List

Assembled by Dan Carter as part of a "timed meander" assessment. According to the rules of this exercise, the list includes all the plants that can be identified in a brief survey; the investigator stops when they fail to find a new species in five minutes. There are likely many other species present. (A few additional common names were added for this post.) 



Acer saccharum

hard maple, sugar maple

Agrimonia gryposepala

common agrimony, tall hairy agrimony

Amelanchier laevis

Allegheny serviceberry, Allegheny shadblow

Amphicarpaea bracteata

American hog-peanut, hog-peanut

Anemone americana

round-lobed hepatica

Anemone quinquefolia

nightcaps, wood anemone

Antennaria parlinii

Parlin's pussy-toes, plantain pussy-toes

Apocynum cannabinum

hemp-dogbane, Indian hemp

Aquilegia canadensis

Canadian columbine, red columbine, wild columbine

Aralia nudicaulis

wild sarsaparilla

Asclepias exaltata

poke milkweed, tall milkweed

Aureolaria grandiflora

large-flowered yellow false foxglove

Berberis thunbergii

Japanese barberry

Calystegia spithamaea

low bindweed, low false bindweed

Carduus nutans

musk thistle, nodding plumeless thistle, nodding thistle

Carex cephalophora

oval-headed sedge, short-headed bracted sedge

Carex pensylvanica

common oak sedge, Pennsylvania sedge

Carex siccata

dry-spiked sedge, hay sedge, hillside sedge, running savanna sedge

Carex stricta

tussock sedge

Carya ovata

shagbark hickory, shellbark hickory

Ceanothus americanus

New Jersey tea, red-root

Celastrus scandens

American bittersweet, climbing bittersweet

Cerastium fontanum

common mouse-ear chickweed

Comandra umbellata

bastard-toadflax, false toadflax

Cornus foemina

gray dogwood, northern swamp dogwood, panicled dogwood

Cornus rugosa

round-leaved dogwood

Cornus sericea

red osier dogwood

Dactylis glomerata

orchard grass

Danthonia spicata

poverty danthonia, poverty grass, poverty oat grass

Diervilla lonicera

northern bush-honeysuckle

Elaeagnus umbellata

autumn olive

Equisetum arvense

common horsetail, field horsetail

Erigeron pulchellus


Euphorbia corollata

flowering spurge

Eurybia furcata

forked aster

Festuca saximontana

Rocky Mountain fescue

Fragaria virginiana

thick-leaved wild strawberry, Virginia strawberry,

Frangula alnus

European alder buckthorn, glossy buckthorn

Fraxinus americana

white ash

Galium boreale

northern bedstraw

Galium concinnum

pretty bedstraw, shining bedstraw

Gaylussacia baccata


Gentianella quinquefolia

ague-weed, stiff gentian

Geranium maculatum

Crane's-bill, spotted geranium, wild geranium

Helianthus hirsutus

hairy sunflower, oblong sunflower, rough sunflower

Heuchera richardsonii

prairie alumroot, Richardson's alumroot

Hieracium caespitosum

field hawkweed, meadow hawkweed, yellow king-devil

Hieracium umbellatum

narrow-leaved hawkweed, northern hawkweed

Ilex verticillata

common winterberry

Juniperus virginiana

eastern red-cedar

Krigia biflora

false-dandelion, orange dwarf-dandelion, two-flowered Cynthia

Lactuca canadensis

Canada lettuce, tall lettuce, tall wild lettuce, w

Larix laricina

larch, tamarack

Lathyrus ochroleucus

cream pea-vine, pale vetchling, white pea

Lathyrus venosus

veiny pea

Lonicera dioica

limber honeysuckle, mountain honeysuckle, red hone

Lonicera X bella

Bell's honeysuckle, showy bush honeysuckle

Luzula multiflora

common wood rush

Maianthemum racemosum

false Solomon's-seal, false spikenard, large false Solomon's-seal

Medicago lupulina

black medick

Melilotus albus

white sweet-clover

Melilotus officinalis

yellow sweet-clover

Ostrya virginiana

eastern hop-hornbeam, ironwood

Parthenocissus inserta

grape woodbine

Pedicularis canadensis

Canadian lousewort, forest lousewort, wood-betony

Phryma leptostachya

American lop-seed

Picea glauca

white spruce

Plantago major

broad-leaved plantain, common plantain

Poa compressa

Canada bluegrass, wiregrass

Podophyllum peltatum

May-apple, wild mandrake

Polemonium reptans

Greek-valerian, spreading Jacob's-ladder

Populus grandidentata

big-tooth aspen, large-toothed aspen

Potentilla simplex

common cinquefoil, old-field five-fingers

Prenanthes alba

lion's-foot, rattlesnake-root, white-lettuce

Primula meadia

eastern shooting-star, pride-of-Ohio

Prunus serotina

wild black cherry

Prunus virginiana


Pteridium aquilinum

bracken, bracken fern

Quercus alba

white oak

Quercus rubra

northern red oak

Ranunculus abortivus

little-leaf buttercup, small-flowered buttercup

Ranunculus fascicularis

early buttercup, thick-root buttercup

Rhamnus cathartica

common buckthorn, European buckthorn

Rosa carolina

Carolina rose, pasture rose

Rosa multiflora

multiflora rose

Sanicula marilandica

black snakeroot, Maryland sanicle

Sisyrinchium albidum

common blue-eyed grass

Solidago speciosa

showy goldenrod

Solidago ulmifolia

elm-leaved goldenrod

Symphyotrichum laeve

smooth blue aster

Symphyotrichum oolentangiense

sky-blue aster

Symphyotrichum urophyllum

arrow-leaved aster, white arrowleaf aster

Taraxacum officinale

common dandelion

Toxicodendron rydbergii

Rydberg's poison-ivy, western poison-ivy

Trifolium pratense

red clover

Vaccinium myrtilloides

velvet-leaved blueberry

Viburnum opulus

cranberry viburnum, European cranberry-bush, high-bushcranberry

Viburnum rafinesquianum

arrow-wood, downy arrow-wood

Vicia caroliniana

Carolina vetch, pale vetch, wood vetch

Viola sororia

door-yard violet, common blue violet, hairy wood violet

Vitis riparia

frost grape, river bank grape

More references, if you're interested

In that presentation, Dan offers the summary below from Veldman et al. It summarizes characteristics of ancient grassland ecosystems from a paper that focuses principally on the tropics. But it offers principles that may apply to our less-well-studied remnants as well. 

Three of the many posts on this blog that explore similar questions in Illinois remnants and restoration:


This post was written by Stephen Packard. Credit for the original discovery of the significance of Army Lake Woodland goes to Dan Carter. Dan is now with The Prairie Enthusiasts, a highly-respected organization that focuses volunteer and professional resources on stewardship and advocacy for biodiversity. 

For proofing and edits to an earlier version to Dan Carter, and for this version thanks to Matt Evans and Christos Economou.