Tuesday, September 07, 2021

How Happy Do Seeds Make Us?

In healing the planet and restoring biodiversity, the egg comes first.

(As in, “Which comes first, the chicken or …”)

Seeds for "Mesic Woods Turf" - before they're mixed.

I mean, we walk, arms full of seed-mix bags, on an irregular and partly blighted landscape, perhaps recently cleared of deadly brush, bearing handfuls containing tens of thousands of seeds, from big to tiny. There’s the tactile feeling of those valuable and beautiful plant embryos. Then dirt, fresh air, and the vision of recovered richness … all this thrills us.

I thought to call this “Just In Time For Rosh Hashanah.” Certainly it was those words and the interaction below that inspired this brief post. 

Eriko and I were broadcasting some of the 2021 spring seed mixes in Somme Woods. It’s hard work, a lot of moving parts. We’re switching back and forth among 14 (of this spring's 20) different seed mixes, according to our best assessment of interactions among the slope, wetness, state of the current vegetation (if any), amount of tree canopy, and likely such state next spring. We’re GPSing. Also, as we weigh priorities, we’re trying to decide or imagine what impacts this coming fall burn and this winter’s brush and pole tree removal will have. The seeds we’re broadcasting represent hundreds (thousands?) of hours of dedicated, unpaid work by perhaps 100 people. When we finish our GPS tracker will record that we’d broadcast those seeds over only 1.8 miles. But much of that was through brush, or dense beautiful rare vegetation that we didn’t want to trample unnecessarily, or through briars. I’d been walking first and turned around to ask a question or suggest an option. Eriko’s face had the most beautiful smile. I commented. And she said, “I’m so happy to get the seeds out … and just in time for Rosh Hashanah!”

Really? Rosh Hashanah? She’s of Japanese ancestry and religiously a Bahá’í? I grew up sort of Christian? But then I realized Eriko's meaning; let's celebrate at every opportunity. Life is good!

We stewards are so happy. That’s really the end of this post-let. But there are more tidbits of info in captions on the photos below: 

 Finding and gathering is the hardest part. Here 12 Leiberg's panic grass seeds are more-or-less in focus by an edge of prairie dock leaf and black-eyed Susan. Leiberg's is one of the most important, hardest to spot, rarest, and rarely gathered species in restoration. Few will notice it. And yet, it's key to the structure and sustainability of a high-quality grassland. 

But "hard work" doesn't mean "not fun." There's space for deep conversation and pleasant banter. A photo of Emma Leavens and Eriko Kojima seed gathering at Shaw Woods and Prairie catches the spirit pretty well. The context goes a long way toward ensuring happy work.  

This is how our passion goes: When we see hepatica in bloom, we love its beauty, but we're equally inspired by those seeds we see forming after the petals drop. They'll go in our spring seed mixes. 

And soon, the Big Fall Seed Season will begin. Young and old will all chip in - at Shaw, North Branch, Poplar Creek, Flint Creek Savanna, Langham Island, and so many worthy prairies, woods, and wetlands across the region. It's becoming a Rite of Passage of the Seasons.  


Still, our happiness is not matured until the seeds (including the much bigger fall mixes) are broadcast and resurrect themselves as new generations of healthy and sustainable life. Coming attractions.

Yes, very happy. 

Oh, seeds!


Thanks to Eriko Kojima, Christos Economou, and Kathy Garness for proofing and edits. 

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Two Tiny Wildlife Adventures

We of the Somme Team write plans, reports, histories. The little report below seemed fun to Eriko who suggested it be a blog post.

It’s not earth-shaking, but there’s always a bit more to learn. 


When I was scything in Fourth Pond Meadow (FPM) yesterday I had two adventures.


Well, three really, as Sai joined me later on, and we had a chance to talk about what’s going on with his son and the trip to Germany. And the new seed mixes, and how they might apply to FPM. Sai and I looked at the area between the open planting and the wooded “pool” – on the west. It’s interesting, strange looking, begging for seed … and to have more shade removed. It’s worth more of us thinking about it.  


But for my two wildlife adventures:


1) There was a certain amount of hotness and sunniness, so I decided to do my work in sort of a transect line, crossing FPM and facing away from the sun as I worked, and then circling around through shady, poorer-quality areas to get back to my starting place, and watching carefully where I put each step and selectively scything another line across FPM. 


(It’s increasingly rich and beautiful there, by the way. I found many scattered purple prairie clovers, smooth blue asters, prairie docks that have “teen-age” looks to them, and a few leadplants and small skullcaps, in this are that was nothing by brush and dirt before we cleared and seeded it, and hundreds, probably thousands of dropseed grasses, compass plants, quinines, etc. etc.)


On one of my circlings-around through the rough areas, I came across one of Rebeccah’s little burn scars, from the small brush burned last fall, and it was still covered by small black remains of coals. And since it’s easier to walk through nothing as opposed to thick rank weeds, I put my foot forward, over the apparently empty black, but, at that point, three (at least) tiny, tiny toads jumped off the coals and into the green. They had been so invisible. So perfectly toad-camouflaged. I wondered, what brought them there. Food? Warmth (from the sun on the black). Or what? But they were unquestionably precious.

This is not one of those toads, of course.
They were the size of one of this child's fingertips. 

2) Sometimes as I made these plow-through-the-weeds re-set trips, I scythed a bit as I went. To make it easier to walk. And to see what plants were down there. Sometimes I’d find a Riddell’s goldenrod or a boneset, and I’d give the area around them a bit of bonus scything. At one point, as I walked and cut, my scythe opened a view to a bird’s nest - which then exploded - at least two energetic dark fuzzballs escaping me and my scythe. I backed up. The parents put up an impressive fuss. They were indigo buntings. The birds seemed mature enough that the parents will find and feed them and they’ll soon be on their way. But I was sorry to burden them with this additional handicap. Indigo buntings really like our results - if not our ongoing work. 

This is not one of the buntings I saw, of course.
This photo, by Lisa Musgrave, is of a Somme bunting singing, to defend a territory, in which he and his mate can raise members of the next generation.



To restore nature is respected and pure. Destroying it is nasty and evil. But there are trade-offs. If we didn't scythe, some thuggish invasives would degrade and possibly eliminate the new, healthy habitats we work to create. So, we're as careful as we know how to be, but we accept as a necessary cost that we will sometimes unintentionally disrupt the lives of some small neighbors.

And speaking of little lives, we also sometimes allow kids to do stuff that kids do. Mostly they're there in the fall or spring, so birds' nests are not the issue. But they turn over logs and pick up salamanders and toads (and even snakes sometimes), and we mostly think that that's part of the healthy childhood of someone who may end up being an inspired scientist ... or a person who likes nature and has more of a feel for the Earth and its living things. 

A wonderful purist once told me that he wouldn't contribute to conservation organizations that showed photos of people holding frogs or butterflies or other animals. It showed disrespect and dominance, he said. I understood his point. Indeed, I appreciated it. But there are trade-offs. Most of us at Somme hope more kids take part in more nature, in their own ways, within reason, of course. 

Friday, July 30, 2021

2021 Big Bird Year

Photos by Lisa Musgrave (with a Sandhill Crane adventure by Sai Ramakrishna)
It’s been a “big breeding bird year” at the Somme preserves. 
Topping the list is the arrival of many pairs of dickcissels at Somme Prairie – for the first time prairie birds have bred there (or anywhere in the North Branch forest preserves) in our decades of stewardship. 
Many males set up territories and sang their hearts out. More and more, this site is becoming big enough to be “a real prairie” for animals. Credit goes to many: Forest Preserve staff for recent contract clearing of the last of the invading trees … and decades of volunteer stewardship.

         Somme Prairie (red)      Somme Prairie Grove (orange)    Somme Woods (yellow)

Across the railroad tracks in Somme Prairie Grove, we were inspired this year to find at least two breeding pairs of red-headed woodpeckers (said to be the fastest declining bird species on the continent). 
Just a few years ago they arrived in the savannas here, for the first time in decades. Now they’re a striking, showy, and frequent presence. They often talk to me for some time when I arrive ... and fly up close ... sometimes lurking on the back side of a tree trunk ... sometimes boldly out in the open. They seem curious. Or protective? 

Savanna and prairie birds need different habitats. Dickcissels, bobolinks, and such prairie species don’t breed in the “Prairie Grove” because they can’t handle the “Grove” part – the trees. Many species are so finely tuned that they succeed only within strict habitat quality limits. Prairie species can’t cope with the predators that perch and hide in trees. But the savanna species are the fine-tuned masters of the scattered trees habitat. The black-headed youngsters will emerge from their nest holes soon.
Another champ this year was the orchard oriole. Also a savanna specialist that didn’t show up for decades, not until the habitat was good enough, and in early years we saw only a few immature birds. 
Both Baltimore and orchard orioles breed at Somme. Unlike the orange Baltimores, the orchard oriole male is a deep brick red. The females are a greenish yellow (as opposed to the female Baltimores, which are orange-ish yellow, if you want to be technical).  
This year at least three pairs wove their hanging nests and raised their chicks here. Both parents feed the chicks, and the family group stays together until fall migration. Those chicks have already fledged, as shown below: 

Our biggest surprise in Somme Woods was a pair of sandhill cranes for a couple of weeks in May, normally their breeding season. Sai Ramakrishna first discovered them and photographed as best he could with his phone. They spent some time walking through the open woods and then approached First Pond, where Sai was studying the vegetation. (The pond had been nearly impenetrable cat-tails; with restoration, it was now diverse and compact bur-reeds, sweet flags, sedges, and forbs.) The cranes began doing ritual mating behavior, jumping, hovering, bowing, dancing, and tearing up vegetation and tossing it dramatically. They weren’t shy about it either; the pair drifted close to where Sai was standing, performing all the while. (Sadly, his phone ran out of power half way through.)
Red-winged blackbirds began screaming at the cranes, dive-bombing them mercilessly, and sometimes landing on their backs to peck them. Three male red-wings are in the photo below, but there were often half a dozen hovering over the cranes. All males - perhaps because the females were on nests, guarding eggs? Cranes are known to eat eggs and nestlings. 
At least twice we saw the cranes pluck clumps of dried vegetation from the reeds. It seemed like they were destroying red-wing nests. Perhaps these two species aren't comfortable nesting close to each other? 
A few days later, a group of three cranes was seen foraging in the Somme Woods ponds. That threesome was kind of a giveaway. This had not been a nesting pair. They had been playing or practicing. Cranes are long-lived birds, and one or two year olds have a lot to learn. They don’t attempt to reproduce in their first few years. Cranes that are too young to breed typically stick together in small flocks. 

Later, Lisa snapped this photo of one of those cranes, hunting for food in the savanna and open woods of the recently-burned Somme Prairie Grove: 

The other big Woods surprise was a pileated woodpecker. One was seen repeatedly over a few weeks. A study estimated that these huge woodpeckers need a minimum territory of 320 acres. The Somme/Chipilly complex is 700 acres of forest preserves. But a lot of it is not yet good pileated habitat. Still, it’s good to know that they’re checking it out. Maybe next year?
Somme Woods and Prairie Grove seem to be especially fine woodpecker habitat. In addition to at least five pairs of red-headed woodpeckers (appreciating both the savannas and open oak woodlands) and uncountable northern flickers (another species of conservation concern), these sites have large numbers of red-bellied, hairy, and downy woodpeckers, in part perhaps because of the large numbers of dead trees (ash and elm trees killed by disease and invasive trees killed by fire).
Other birds that posed splendidly for Lisa in 2021 include:
One of the "success stories" of the Somme preserves has been that of the hummingbirds. They appreciate our abundance of flowers. 

A decade ago, Somme was the opposite of a success story for the scarlet tanager. An occasional pair tried to nest in Somme Prairie Grove, but it never seemed to work out. Then our big push for oak woodland habitat in Somme Woods stole the tanagers away from Prairie Grove. 
Even after the tanagers head back to the Amazon and Central America for the winter, we feel their presence as indicators that our efforts seem to be achieving quality woods habitat. They also continue to remind us that when some birds win, others lose. As the tanagers lost their habitat in Prairie Grove, they increased from zero in Somme Woods to three, four, and five pair, now breeding regularly. Yes, the improved habitat for savanna birds decreased tanager habitat in Prairie Grove, but the work in the Woods more than made up. Similarly, the great-horned owls that once nested and hunted in Somme Prairie have lost that habitat, but they're thriving in the savanna and woods. 
Lisa finds great-horned owl nests every year in Somme Prairie Grove and Somme Woods. Owls don’t build nests but typically “re-cycle” the previous year’s red-tailed hawk nest, as above. She lays her eggs in February and typically spends some of her incubating time in a nest rimmed with snow. It’s his job to bring her enough food to keep her warm during this unusually early start to the breeding season. 

The kestrel (also called sparrow hawk) is a kind of falcon. These fast-flying raptors eat mice, small birds, and often grasshoppers. Since apparently-over-abundant mice chop down and eat a large percentage of some of our endangered prairie plant species, we vote that Somme's kestrels concentrate on mice.
This year the kestrel parents nested in a hole in a tree in the northwest corner of Somme Prairie Grove. They use old woodpecker nests. They fledged at least two young this year. The parents and young have been screaming and dare-devil flying, all over the open parts of the site for a couple of weeks now. Since they hunt on the wing, unlike the great-horned owl, they also spend a lot of time at Somme Prairie. 

The American woodcock is a kind of sandpiper that breeds in savannas and open woods. They’ve recently begun nesting in parts of Somme Woods where large areas of invasives have been cut. Like the great-horned owl, they’re one of Somme’s earliest nesters. Sometimes the incubating female is nearly covered with snow for a day or two, but she toughs it out.

Their nests regularly have four large eggs. As soon as they hatch, the chicks are ready to walk around with their mom, looking for food. Both the eggs and the chicks are well camouflaged and in danger when people walk off trail in woodcock habitats in spring. They can and do get stepped on. 
If a woodhen flies up in a labored, weird way after waiting until you’ve nearly stepped on her, she’s trying to lure you away from her chicks. Don’t move your feet until you’ve studied the ground for little tykes like this. Back off! But it’s okay to take a photo if you’re careful.  

Finally, a photo worthy of the wood duck. These beauties are regulars in the Somme Woods ponds - and are also often seen sitting high on big limbs in the oaks. Nesting in tree holes, they appreciate both ponds and open woods. We occasionally see the somberly colored female with her line of ducklings, after they take the big jump out of their nest hole, as she leads them through the woods toward the safety of the ponds. 

Congratulations to Lisa Musgrave for a spectacular year of bird photos.
Congratulations to all who've worked to restore habitat here. Every bird shown is indebted to you.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

23 Photos and 4 Ideas

A not-highly-organized Photo Essay:

Images and Thoughts from late June and early July 2021

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” 

                                                                                                Aldo Leopold

                                                                                                A Sand County Almanac

Beauty? Do we stewards have to be concerned about our love affair with color?

Yes and no. These colors suggest health and quality because they came together by their own agency as part of the healing process. Beauty sometimes indicates health. But there will be a lot more to say about this.

(Since people always ask for flower names: the plants most obvious here are butterfly milkweed (orange), wild bergamot (lavender), and narrow-leaved mountain mint (white). But there are at least a dozen other species easily identifiable if you "know your plants.")

And what if we tip the camera up and show the background also? Why are so many trees dead?

Are dead trees ugly?
Or do you even notice them, with all that early July color in the foreground?
The simple quick answer is that the dead trees are mostly invaders. Sooner or later trees always die, but in this case, ash disease and controlled fire killed most of them. 

Since we also burn the invasive trees we cut in the winter, we end up with bonfire pile 'burn scars' - like the one the edge of which is shown below.
The plant is Bicknell's geranium - recognized as an Endangered species in Illinois. It's the only plant of its species we've found at Somme so far this year. We hope there's another one, and the pollen grains from those hypothetical two can find their ways to each other's ovaries. 

We only see Bicknell's geranium where a hot wood fire has sterilized the soil. That's its habitat. Its role in the ecosystem is to begin the recycling of burned soil. A brush pile burn is the modern counterpart to a great dead tree falling and burning in a lightning- or Potawatomi-ignited fire. This geranium and many species here in many ways have an evolving relationship with fire going back millions of years. 

The photo below illustrates a different, oblique relationship with fire.

Here, under invasive trees until two winters ago, the bare dirt and lack of diversity seem to result from an invasion of woodland sunflower - now dominant and apparently excluding most other vegetation. Fires in this preserve depend on two major fuel types - warm-season grasses and oak leaves. This area has neither, as woodland sunflower is poor fuel. Here, as shown in the foreground, we are scything the sunflowers as an experiment to see whether we can restore diverse fuel species to this area - and whethr such an approach could in time lead to sustainable biodiversity conservation.

If you walk the trails, you may notice that a great many experiments under way at the Somme preserves. In this case a prairie lily peeks out of a deer-exclusion cage. Prairie lily is a rare and highly conservative plant.

The prairie lily (in contrast to the Michigan lily) is generally found only in very-high-quality prairies and savannas. For decades, fewer than half a dozen bloomed each year in Somme Prairie - and none at all in Somme Prairie Grove. Then we began protecting them from deer and voles with cages. Now scores of them bloom annually in both Nature Preserves. 

(The much-commoner Michigan lily does not have those proud, upward facing flowers. The equally beautiful and commoner Michigan lily has petals that arch around nearly into a circle and flower stems that gracefully arch over so the flower faces downward.) 

On the other hand, recovery of ecosystem diversity and health is not a straight line. The Somme preserves were subjected to a severe drought for the first half of the 2021 growing season. The tall exclusion cage (above) was constructed for the height this lily attained last year. In 2021, it's a third of that height. Natural ecosystems have evolved to weather diverse stresses - within gradually-changing parameters. We expect the recovery to go through twists and turns. 

For the lily, we hope that, as with some other species, there may someday be sufficiently many (and perhaps more predation and fewer deer) that we can dispense with the cages. 

Deer sometimes like to eat purple milkweed, a characteristic savanna species. This uncommon plant increased dramatically under the influence of prescribed burns, as the seed from a few plants blew about the preserve. (We did little or nothing special to help them. That's true for most of the 490 species in this savanna. Others (especially some of the high conservatives that will one day be the core of the ecosystem) need various kinds of intensive care, at least for a while.  

This fairly rich area has an unusual abundance of black-eyed Susans. All the other species we see here are long-lived perennials. But black-eyed Susans live for just two years. Like the Bicknell's geranium, this is a species that helps heal ecosystem wounds. Two years ago something happened that left bare ground. The Susans colonized that space but (like all biennials) did not bloom. This year they're dramatically colorful and will set seeds ... and die. Then those seeds will wait for another opportunity. In high-quality grasslands, the Susans are regular, but just here and there, helping to heal this and that. Here, something happened (as shown in the photo below) that resulted in a lot of opportunities for new plant establishment. These happy blooms therefore remind us that this would likely be a good place to plant some of our rare conservative seed this fall. 

Other species in the photo above: The big white flower clusters are wild quinine. The little white ones are fleabane (another disturbance-healing biennial like black-eyed Susan). The big leaves (not blooming yet and likely to wait until next year) are prairie dock. The big clumps of dense, fine grass are prairie dropseed, the most conservative of our warm-season grasses. In the background are masses of the whitish leaves and purple flowers of leadplant. 

The dead stem above, and shriveled leaves at its base, were a top-killed-by-fire but then re-sprouting buckthorn. We sprayed herbicide on the re-sprouts. Note that the surrounding vegetation seems little impacted by the herbicide. 

Hairstreak butterfly. The work here is as much about animals as plants. As is typical, the rare plants here support an even larger number of rare animals. Burning as often as we can safely manage is probably best for most of the savanna plant species. Too much burning may harm some of the animal species, so we try always to maintain some unburned habitats. 

Except in special cases, we take photos from the paths, to avoid trampling. 

The burn scar here is a minor problem. It will be well into its natural successional process in a year or two. But the woodland sunflower and tall goldenrod around it concern us. They resist fire. Areas that don't burn will revert to woody invaders before long.

Step forward a few paces and you can see stumps of two of the large trees that were cut here and burned in that pile. These unnatural trees stood over impoverished vegetation. After the burn though, two aggressive species were taking over. We will scythe them wholesale for a couple of years while seeding to promote more diversity. We get the sense that under some circumstances this approach restores a sustainable plant community ... and under other circumstances it does not. The various approaches are being studied by the Somme Team ( in part coordinated by Karen Glennemeier with a grant from the Illinois Native Plant Society). We learn and report. 

This is a somewhat similar area. But here, quality plants are mixed with the aggressive ones. In this case, we will surgically scythe the woodland sunflower and tall goldenrod while protecting the other species. the results are shown below.

This is the same scene, after scything (and removing the scythed material for this photo, so it's easier to see what is left). From the foliage, we can identify cream gentian, wild quinine, golden Alexanders, wild strawberry, rattlesnake master, prairie dock, pale Indian plantain, Culver's root, agrimony, pasture thistle, early goldenrod, Virginia anemone, and others including semi-suppressed grasses and sedges that may make a critical component of the fuel for the fires that may foster increasing quality of this area over the long haul.  

In an even shadier area, with lots of oaks and sedges, there's plenty of fuel for fire to repel invaders. The blue flowers belong to heart-leaved skullcap.  Those lines arching across this photo are sedges whose long flower stalks seem to be reaching out to plant the seeds just a bit farther away from the mother plant. 

Here, in the very open savanna, the fires maintain impressively increasing diversity, but perhaps do it too well for some species? Those clumps of shrubby growths here and there are bur and scarlet oak re-sprouts. They have burned off and stayed small for more than forty years now. The prairie species are doing great! In this former savanna, the "in between" species (not too dark and not too bright) would thrive better if some of the oaks were allowed to grow bigger. For some years now, we've begun working to promote oak reproduction in some areas, as shown below:

Above, two young bur oaks are protected from deer and rabbits in cages. 

We had protected this young bur oak from deer and fire - but then bucks started scraping the bark off the trunk with their antlers. So an additional cage was added to discourage that. It worked. On the other hand, there's a downside to this tree's growing success. Soon it will begin to shade out some of the full-sun dependent species, that we worked so hard to restore here. But the higher goal is to restore the full savanna community, so we'll now work to restore the species of the "in between" - neither full sun nor shade. 

Among the species that seem to do better in dappled light than in the open prairie is Canada milk vetch, the yellow-flowered plant here. At Somme it seems to fade out of the full sun areas as they recover conservative quality, but they and many other species are expected to increase near growing trees. 

In the photo below, the three stages of the drama are visible. In the distance is the completely treeless Somme Prairie. In the foreground is high-quality grassland, former savanna, with bur and scarlet oaks starting to "grow up to be real trees." Here, the "in between" species will increase at the expense of the species more typical of the prairie. In the middle distance are stands of mixed oaks and invasive trees.

In that middle distance, the oaks will be saved here and there, most invaders removed, and the mix of prairie and savanna species seeded in as needed. Savanna restoration is new. There is no place like this on the planet. It's a pleasure and an honor for so many of us to participate in this recovery. 

Thanks for joining us for images and thoughts of late June and early July 2021.

This post also is a friendly invitation to you to come, learn, and enjoy.
More participants, leaders, and experimenters are always welcome on the Somme Team.