A Good Burn

by Carl Strang

The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County has invested a welcome amount of effort in restoring the forest at St. James Farm, where I am volunteer steward. Early this spring a large group of trained staff came in and conducted a successful burn of accumulated leaf litter in the main part of the forest. The point of the burn is to kill or at least weaken invasive plants such as garlic mustard and barberry.

The contrast between the unburned trail and the burn area reveals the intensity of the burn.

The burn coverage was about as complete as one could expect.

No burn is complete, however. Some forest floor invertebrate species will need a few years to recover, but there will be plenty surviving in small spots missed by the fire, as well as surrounding areas not included in the burn.

A smaller burn on an earlier date in the area we are clearing of buckthorn was not as complete, because the leaf litter accumulation was relatively shallow and spotty.

I didn’t take any photos of the main burn as it was taking place because I was busy. Our forests historically burned very infrequently, and some of the plants cannot be assumed to be as fire-adapted as the ones characteristic of savannas and woodlands. In particular I was concerned that blackhaws (Viburnum prunifolium), the dominant shrub layer species, might be harmed. So, I worked ahead of the flames, frantically raking dead leaves away from the bases of as many blackhaws as I could reach in the two hours that I had. I did not have time to cover the entire forest, so there were some areas where the flames reached the bases of blackhaw shrubs.

Some blackhaws were heavily scorched.

Other blackhaws were lightly scorched.

Blackhaws I cleared by raking away the leaf litter were unscorched.

In subsequent weeks the forest leafed out, and the blackhaws bloomed.

Blackhaw flower cluster

I spent part of an afternoon assessing scorched vs. unscorched blackhaws. The scorched ones nearly all had plenty of leaves, though a few were killed. Most scorched plants had some flowers, though almost all were limited to 1-5 clusters.

Unscorched blackhaws had abundant flower clusters.

A little less than two-thirds of the scorched shrubs flowered at all, and again, those that did had few. Nine-tenths of the raked blackhaws bloomed, for the most part with many more flower clusters. Sample sizes were large enough to support a strong statistically significant difference. I will continue to watch this, as I am concerned that the scorched plants may have been partly girdled by the flames. I will be recommending that other forest stewards take measures to work with the fire crews and protect the native shrub layer of our woodlands by raking away fuel from shrub bases.

In the meantime, the part of the forest that we have been clearing of buckthorn and other invasive shrubs is showing first fruits of our efforts.

Even in this first year, our treatment area showed an encouraging growth of spring ephemeral herbaceous plants.

One long-term goal will be to promote blackhaw and other native species, so as to restore the shrub layer in the area we have cleared.

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St. James Farm Update

by Carl Strang

It has been a while since I have written about St. James Farm, where I volunteer as forest steward and monitor. There has not been a lot to report, in part because foot problems have limited my monitoring activity.

Going back to last fall, I noted that the patches of invasive goutweed where we dumped garlic mustard showed a difference. One patch, which had not been hit by herbicide in the spring, pushed its way through the mounds of wilting garlic mustard and was barely slowed.

Other patches like this one, which forest preserve district staff had sprayed earlier in the spring, appeared to be inhibited further by the dumps.

I noted that goutweed does not maintain winter rosettes, but withdraws nutrients into the roots and shuts down the leaves, growing new ones in the spring. This coming fall I plan to hit experimental patches of goutweed with herbicide, with the idea that I might find an optimal time when the poison, drawn down along with the conserved nutrients, will do the most damage to those invasive plants.

Through the winter I took series of monitoring walks twice a month. There was little that was new.

Predators took their tithe, in this case pulled feathers spoke of a male eastern bluebird caught by a raptor.

This buck was one of a group of three that occupied the western part of the forest through the winter.

Though I cut back on monitoring efforts, Wednesday morning restoration activity continued. Our focus through the winter consisted of cutting and stacking common buckthorn, then burning the piles.

Our earlier cutting accumulated 17 piles like this.

Burning them leaves relatively small scars, but the soil is sterilized. I will be interested in seeing what plants invade these little spaces.

Already we have built several new piles. There won’t be enough snow to allow any more burning now, but by next winter there will be plenty to torch.

My feet are under treatment, and I expect to return to full activity soon.

 

Stewardship Begins

by Carl Strang

Earlier this spring I began my work as volunteer steward of McCormick Woods, the main forest at St. James Farm Forest Preserve. The stewards provide backup and extension of the ecosystem restoration work by Forest Preserve District staff. The McCormick Woods ecosystem is the highest quality forest in the western half of DuPage County, and the District has put considerable effort into its restoration, but there still is plenty for volunteers to do. Invasive shrubs and herbaceous plants are established in significant portions of the forest, there supplanting the diverse native plant and animal community.

I have had the help of two other volunteers, Wayne and Bob, and we have made a good start. We began by focusing on garlic mustard, an invasive and allelopathic biennial, in two large areas where native plant diversity is excellent and garlic mustard is not yet well established. We took the bushels of pulled garlic mustard plants and dumped them in two locations, hoping to make progress against the forest’s biggest threat: goutweed.

Goutweed is a perennial member of the parsley family (Apiaceae, formerly Umbelliferae).

Goutweed was imported from its native Europe and commonly is planted as an ornamental ground cover. Apparently it was used in the landscape around the McCormick residence at St. James Farm. Unfortunately it spread into the adjacent forest, and significant colonies of the plant have supplanted the native forest flora in places. Repeated applications of herbicides by District staff may have slowed it down, but do not kill it. Stronger herbicides that would kill it also would threaten the trees.

I selected goutweed colonies in two locations as garlic mustard dump sites. I wanted to see if masses of pulled plants might smother the goutweed, hoping also that allelochemicals might leach out and inhibit goutweed growth. The goutweed has proven to be resilient.

Goutweed leaves pushed up through the piles of garlic mustard in the first location, which had not received an herbicide spray earlier in the spring.

The second dump was in goutweed that had been hit by herbicide. It is too soon to say whether the results are any better.

At some point I want to take measurements to see how fast the goutweed colonies are expanding, and whether these efforts slow that growth.

Now that the garlic mustard pulling is done for the year, we have shifted to another location and are cutting common buckthorn and Amur honeysuckle. That part of the forest still has a good diversity of native woodland plants hanging on beneath the invasive shrubs.

Here is part of the area we have cleared. Increased light levels should allow native plants to expand their populations.

We are creating a brush pile of the cuttings that later will be burned.

There are no goutweed patches in that part of the forest. Burning brush piles would kill the goutweed beneath them.

I was inspired to take on the stewardship job by the diversity of life in McCormick Woods. Some recent photos:

Shooting stars have popped up here and there where they were released by the removal of invasive brush.

Giant swallowtails appear occasionally at St. James Farm.

A recent addition to the preserve species list was this Zabulon skipper.

Searching for Life

by Carl Strang

This spring I have been pressing a search for coral-winged grasshoppers, and it has been disappointing. This singing insect historically was found in a few locations in my 22-county survey area, almost always in May, but none of those locations proved to have the species. Other places that match the habitat descriptions in the literature likewise have been lacking in coral-wings.

Though depression as a response to this experience has been tempting, an antidote has been thoughts about SETI. Many people, years of time, and much expensive technology have been devoted to the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. Furthermore, despite much thought and searching, life of any sort beyond the Earth thus far has been elusive. Balanced against all that, my frustrated search for a species that globally is in no danger seems a trivial matter.

In compensation, I have been getting into some beautiful areas and seeing wondrous sights.

For example, I found hairy puccoons and common blue-eyed grass at Illinois Beach State Park on May 13.

Wood betony also was in peak bloom on the 13th.

From above, wood betony has a delightful pinwheel shape.

Near the edge of the savanna at Illinois Beach State Park, this dung beetle busily rolled a deer fecal pellet.

An Indiana site added Indian paintbrush to the wildflower mix.

 

The Miller Woods Trail of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was flanked by banks of wild lupines on May 16.

Scattered hairy puccoons provided delightful contrast with the lupines.

With such wonderful life all around, it’s hard to be too disappointed by the failure to find a single species.

 

St. James Farm in April

by Carl Strang

April is a month of accelerating change, and this was evident on several levels at St. James Farm this year. Nevertheless, some observations were continuations of patterns established over the winter.

This coyote frequented the meadows along the entrance drive, and one day was joined by another, presumably its mate, distinguished by a significantly redder coat.

A second check of the great horned owl nest, in mid-April, found the adult still present. At this point it would be brooding young, which I have not yet seen.

Many plants begin to bloom in April.

Draba verna, the vernal whitlow grass, was a species I had not noticed last year.

Now that I am in my second year of observations, I can make comparisons. The median first flower date for 33 species was 3 days earlier than last year, not much different.

Spring azures were the first butterflies to appear, on April 2.

A new extension of the regional trail is being constructed through the forest this year.

The route was staked, and later cleared of trees.

I think it is important for the trail system to show off our better ecosystems. This route could have been much more damaging to the vegetation, but I would prefer that it not be so wide. I am hopeful that the new trail’s positives will outweigh its detrimental side.

 

St. James Farm Autumn Update

by Carl Strang

This blog has been on hiatus while I work on my annual research summary documents, but I have been paying regular visits to St. James Farm Forest Preserve, the site I monitor and where I soon will begin as volunteer steward. Today’s entry shares some photos from recent weeks.

Winged euonymus adds color to the autumn scene, but is an invasive shrub that will need to be removed at some point.

Winged euonymus adds color to the autumn scene, but is an invasive shrub that will need to be removed at some point.

As leaves come off the trees, bird nests are revealed. This oriole nest had a significant content of synthetic fibers, including fishing line from the nearby ponds. The fuzzy white object hanging below the nest is a fishing lure, the hook not quite visible at this angle.

As leaves come off the trees, bird nests are revealed. This oriole nest had a significant content of synthetic fibers, including fishing line from the nearby ponds. The fuzzy white object hanging below the nest is a fishing lure, the hook not quite visible at this angle.

This silver-spotted skipper still was active on November 16.

This silver-spotted skipper still was active on November 16.

The opossum lay dead in the center of a trail, also on November 16. Cause of death was not evident.

The opossum lay dead in the center of a trail, also on November 16. Cause of death was not evident.

Late autumn migrants included this white-crowned sparrow youngster.

Late autumn migrants included this white-crowned sparrow youngster.

The most unusual stopover duck was a female pintail on the east pond.

The most unusual stopover duck was a female pintail on the east pond.

Another duck worth noting was this male. Accompanied by a female mallard, his huge size and her identity suggest that he may be a mallard-black duck hybrid.

Another duck worth noting was this male. Accompanied by a female mallard, his huge size and her identity suggest that he may be a mallard-black duck hybrid.

 

Photos May-July

by Carl Strang

It’s been a busy field season, and I have fallen way behind in blog posts. I’ll catch up eventually, but today will share a smorgasbord of photos from May through July.

This barred owl appeared during a walk through St. James Farm Forest Preserve. I believe I had come close to its nest tree.

This barred owl appeared during a walk through St. James Farm Forest Preserve. I believe I had come close to its nest tree.

Here is the first slender spreadwing I have found at St. James Farm.

Here is the first slender spreadwing I have found at St. James Farm.

Wild yam graces the understory of the St. James Farm forest.

Wild yam graces the understory of the St. James Farm forest.

Sporangia on the underside of a lady fern leaf at St. James Farm.

Sporangia on the underside of a lady fern leaf at St. James Farm.

The Lulu Lake Nature Preserve in Walworth County, Wisconsin, has become a favorite site. Here a woodland graces a kame.

The Lulu Lake Nature Preserve in Walworth County, Wisconsin, has become a favorite site. Here a woodland graces a kame.

An eight-spotted forester provided a photo op in the nature preserve portion of the Round Lake state property in Starke County, Indiana.

An eight-spotted forester provided a photo op in the nature preserve portion of the Round Lake state property in Starke County, Indiana.

This dragonfly I encountered at Houghton Lake in Marshall County, Indiana, was a bit of a puzzler. I eventually concluded it was a somewhat odd widow skimmer.

This dragonfly I encountered at Houghton Lake in Marshall County, Indiana, was a bit of a puzzler. I eventually concluded it was a somewhat odd widow skimmer, but later changed the ID to slaty skimmer (see comments).

 

SJF Gallery

by Carl Strang

As recent posts have shown, I am transitioning into the singing insects field season. I will be spending less time at St. James Farm over the next four months, though I won’t be ignoring that preserve completely. So here is a collection of recent photos from St. James Farm Forest Preserve.

I was pleased to find that green dragons are scattered throughout the forest.

I was pleased to find that green dragons are scattered throughout the forest.

Both the smooth sweet cicely, shown here, and the hairy sweet cicely are among the late spring forest wildflowers at SJF.

Both the smooth sweet cicely, shown here, and the hairy sweet cicely are among the late spring forest wildflowers at SJF.

Wild hyacinths are savanna or woods border plants with only a brief blooming period.

Wild hyacinths are savanna or woods border plants with only a brief blooming period.

The somewhat weedy, open-growing common goat’s beard is a personal favorite.

The somewhat weedy, open-growing common goat’s beard is a personal favorite.

Earlier in the season I saw a female dot-tailed whiteface in one of the prairie plots. Here is a male on station at the catch-and-release fishing pond.

Earlier in the season I saw a female dot-tailed whiteface in one of the prairie plots. Here is a male on station at the catch-and-release fishing pond.

The grayish fan-foot, aka grayish Zanclognatha, has been abundant in the forest in recent days. The caterpillars live on fallen dead leaves.

The grayish fan-foot, aka grayish Zanclognatha, has been abundant in the forest in recent days. The caterpillars live on fallen dead leaves.

This eastern bluebird nestling looks ready to get out into the world.

This eastern bluebird nestling looks ready to get out into the world.

 

Memorial Weekend Miscellany

by Carl Strang

As Gary and I toured wild places around Culver over the weekend, we found more of interest than sulfur-winged grasshoppers.

Many wildflowers were blooming, including lance-leaved violets at the Winamac State Fish and Wildlife Area.

Many wildflowers were blooming, including lance-leaved violets at the Winamac State Fish and Wildlife Area.

A number of rapids clubtails worked the sandy power line corridor at Memorial Forest.

A number of rapids clubtails worked the sandy power line corridor at Memorial Forest.

One sad note was a road-killed otter.

I had heard that otters have returned to the Tippecanoe River. This one climbed a tributary to reach the Maxinkuckee Wetlands, and became a casualty.

I had heard that otters have returned to the Tippecanoe River. This one climbed a tributary to reach the Maxinkuckee Wetlands, and became a casualty.

No photo to show for it, but we were impressed by astronomical observations as well. While sampling the variety of Hoosier beers Gary had brought up from Indianapolis, we checked out Mars and Saturn through the spotting scope. Mars, as close as it ever gets to Earth, was a reddish disk. Much farther away, Saturn appeared as a cute little image with the rings nicely visible and separate from the planet’s main mass.

We closed the weekend by attending the local VFW Memorial Day ceremony, and visited the graves of our parents, who passed away two years ago. Then we went our separate ways home.

St. James Farm is Blooming

by Carl Strang

Spring flowers continue to open at St. James Farm Forest Preserve. Today’s post is a gallery of highlights. On the large scale, I have been delighted to find that black haw is a dominant understory shrub in the central forest.

Black haw is a native Viburnum.

Black haw is a native Viburnum.

Blooming black haws are prominent in the forest area cleared of invasive shrubs this past winter.

Blooming black haws are prominent in the forest area cleared of invasive shrubs this past winter.

Diverse herbaceous plants are blooming at the ground level.

Jacob’s ladders are common in parts of the forest.

Jacob’s ladders are common in parts of the forest.

A few declined trilliums also have appeared. The white trilliums have become rarer in DuPage County thanks to people picking them, which kills them. All plants are legally protected on the preserves.

A few declined trilliums also have appeared. The white trilliums have become rarer in DuPage County thanks to people picking them, which kills them. All plants are legally protected on the preserves.

Butterweed is an uncommon and short-lived member of the ragwort group.

Butterweed is an uncommon and short-lived member of the ragwort group.

This bulbous cress plant is benefitting from last year’s restoration of the stream and its corridor area.

This bulbous cress plant is benefitting from last year’s restoration of the stream and its corridor area.

I look forward to many more botanical discoveries as the season progresses.

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