Mayslake Burns

by Carl Strang

Smoke rose in thick columns on Thursday as the Forest Preserve District’s controlled burn program reached Mayslake Forest Preserve. Mayslake has well-established restored prairies, and the burn cleared off the dead tops of last year’s growth. The fire released minerals back to the soil, opened the way for the living roots to send new, unimpeded shoots skyward, blackened the soil further to facilitate plant growth by soaking in solar heat, and knocked back undesirable, competing woody plants.

A prairie burn is an impressive thing to watch.

A prairie burn is an impressive thing to watch.

Goldilocks would appreciate the decision to burn on a given day. Everything has to be just right. There needs to be some wind, but not too much. The area has to be large enough but not too large, and bounded by mowed areas or other fire stoppers. The vegetation needs to be dry enough. Finally, the burn crews need to be sufficiently equipped and trained to manage the burn safely.

Ranger staff keep watch from all sides.

Ranger staff keep watch from all sides.

Sometimes burns are incomplete due to the plants being too wet, but this time the prairies burned well. A walk through a recently burned area is worth taking, as it reveals what was hidden by all that herbage: the microtopography of the land, which can help determine exactly which plants grow where; the networks of animal trails, large and small; skeletons of animals that lived their last moments there. No freshly killed animals, though. They have their ways of escaping the flames.

Tiny low spots can host a few plants that prefer slightly wetter soils.

Tiny low spots can host a few plants that prefer slightly wetter soils.

The day after the Mayslake burn I found a number of animals taking advantage of the change. Killdeers and robins ran unimpeded over the cleared ground. Migrating sandhill cranes took advantage of thermals rising from the blackened soil to gain altitude during their journey north. In a few days, the warming soil will release and activate insects, and eastern phoebes likely will congregate to feed on them.

A robin hunts on the newly opened ground.

A robin hunts on the newly opened ground.

Sandhill cranes on the thermal elevator above the burn site.

Sandhill cranes on the thermal elevator above the burn site.

Another month, and the ground will be thick with new green shoots. The prairie always grows better in a burn year. (Note: This post first appeared last week as a Nature Note in the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County’s Observe Your Preserve website. )

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3 Comments

  1. Lisa Rainsong said,

    April 2, 2013 at 3:15 pm

    To what extent do these burns affect the crickets and katydids? From what I can tell, eggs deposited in plant stems and leaves are destroyed but those deposited in plant crowns and the ground are not. Have you seen this kind of impact, and do the insects fill in from nearby areas?

    • natureinquiries said,

      April 3, 2013 at 6:02 am

      Hi, Lisa,
      That question also occurred to me as I walked through the burn area. I made a note in my research calendar to check the numbers in the coming season. There are equally large habitat areas that did not burn, and also a few corners in the burned areas that flamed lightly or not at all, to provide comparisons. The first indication could come early as I note numbers of greenstriped grasshoppers, whose nymphs likely were buried in the litter close to the ground. I would expect them, tree crickets and meadow dwelling katydids to be affected more than Carolina grasshoppers, ground crickets and fall field crickets, whose eggs are buried in the soil.
      Regards,
      Carl

  2. April 12, 2013 at 5:51 am

    […] I reported earlier, Mayslake Forest Preserve had a thorough controlled burn of its highest quality restored prairies […]


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