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.

Where There’s Smoke

by Carl Strang

Mid-November brought forest preserve district crews to St. James Farm to conduct controlled burns in the forest. These burns are a normal part of oak woodland ecology in northeastern Illinois, and they help control invasive plants. Occasionally the consequences of the burn extend beyond the brief time when the flames consume the dry leaf litter on the ground, and I noted two such incidents this time around.

Carpenter ants commonly hollow out the base of a tree as they tunnel through the dead wood at the core. If the accumulated sawdust catches a spark from the controlled burn, a slow growing smoldering coal can expand to the point where it consumes a significant amount of the remaining wood.

A victim of that phenomenon was the large white oak that harbored the great horned owl nest last winter.

A victim of that phenomenon was the large white oak that harbored the great horned owl nest last winter.

There had been a larger live stem, and a smaller dead stem (the fractured one in the photo) where the nest had been. The live stem’s base was thinned by the growing coal to the point where it went down, taking the nest stem with it.

The same burn had the remarkable effect of catching in another tree, already knocked down by a storm, which then smoldered for weeks.

Here is the tree 2.5 weeks after the burn, on December 5. The underside of the fallen stem was burning slowly from west to east, and the top of the stem protected the coal from the snowfall.

Here is the tree 2.5 weeks after the burn, on December 5. The underside of the fallen stem was burning slowly from west to east, and the top of the stem protected the coal from the snowfall.

Another heavier snowfall still did not stop the burn, here on December 12. This was a cold day, but a moderate west wind kept the coal alive.

Another heavier snowfall still did not stop the burn, here on December 12. This was a cold day, but a moderate west wind kept the coal alive.

At that point, however, the coal was no longer sheltered. When I returned on the 16th, I found the fire had gone out. It had lasted nearly a month.

 

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.

 

St. James Farm is Singing

by Carl Strang

Birds poured into St. James Farm Forest Preserve in mid-May as the wave crest of neotropical migrants pushed through northern Illinois. On some days, sorting through the many songs to note visiting species was a challenge.

Not all were singing, though, for example this bald eagle that stopped in the restored stream corridor.

Not all were singing, though, for example this bald eagle that stopped in the restored stream corridor.

Blue-gray gnatcatchers are common on the preserve, and are among the earliest nesters.

Blue-gray gnatcatchers are common on the preserve, and are among the earliest nesters.

I am hoping this hooded warbler, singing among the thicketed portions of the central forest, will find a mate and nest there.

I am hoping this hooded warbler, singing among the thicketed portions of the central forest, will find a mate and nest there.

I took that photo from a distance on a foggy day, not wanting to get too close and create a disturbance.

This sharp-shinned hawk was very vocal, its calls to my ear less like those of its relative the Cooper’s hawk and more like those of a shorebird.

This sharp-shinned hawk was very vocal, its calls to my ear less like those of its relative the Cooper’s hawk and more like those of a shorebird.

At one point, heavy rains flooded the stream well beyond its banks.

The engineered restoration corridor held up well to the challenge.

The engineered restoration corridor held up well to the challenge.

Among the water-loving birds that took advantage of this temporary habitat expansion was a double-crested cormorant, here taking a break between swims.

Among the water-loving birds that took advantage of this temporary habitat expansion was a double-crested cormorant, here taking a break between swims.

After the water receded, the deposited mud interested a few late shorebird migrants, including this least sandpiper.

After the water receded, the deposited mud interested a few late shorebird migrants, including this least sandpiper.

For other birds, the breeding season is well under way.

I am not sure where this goose brood came from, but they have found the restored stream corridor to their liking.

I am not sure where this goose brood came from, but they have found the restored stream corridor to their liking.

Among my happiest observations in the second half of May has been the discovery of two eastern bluebird nests in natural cavities.

Here the male stuffs food into unseen nestlings in a bur oak cavity.

Here the male stuffs food into unseen nestlings in a bur oak cavity.

Mom takes her turn. In just a few minutes I saw each parent make 3 such feeding trips.

Mom takes her turn. In just a few minutes I saw each parent make 3 such feeding trips.

The same story was repeated in a dead tree near the stream. I am relieved that not all bluebirds are dependent upon human-provided nest boxes.

A little earlier in their own cycle, a pair of red-headed woodpeckers has been setting up shop in another dead tree.

They have settled upon the lower of the two holes beside the foreground bird.

They have settled upon the lower of the two holes beside the foreground bird. (Clicking on any photo will blow it up for better viewing).

This pair energetically repelled another pair which expressed interest in their tree. I hope the other pair also will nest at St. James Farm.

SJF February Summary

by Carl Strang

Beginning in the middle of the month, I went through all of St. James Farm Forest Preserve seeking the great horned owl nest. I did not find it, but did create an inventory of 25 large tree cavities where an incubating owl might not be visible from the ground. An additional possibility would be a hawk nest in the dense top of one of the spruces. Twice I saw an owl, presumably the male if they are nesting this year, in the same north central portion of the main forest. In past observations elsewhere, the male usually perched in the vicinity of the nest. I will continue to monitor the suspect cavities, but may need to see branched young later in the season to narrow down possibilities further.

I was able to eliminate this cavity, as it was otherwise occupied.

I was able to eliminate this cavity, as it was otherwise occupied.

Some photo processing in the computer makes the raccoon easier to see.

Some photo processing in the computer makes the raccoon easier to see.

I had not seen or heard a pileated woodpecker on the preserve for more than 6 weeks (though occasionally I heard suspicious loud, spaced tapping sounds), but in the second half of February heard or saw one on three different days. The one close sighting was of a male.

The pileated’s tongue-spear in action.

The pileated’s tongue-spear in action.

American coots and large numbers of mallards were a continuing presence on the stream. For much of the month the Canada geese roosting at Blackwell frequently passed over St. James Farm in large numbers, occasionally stopping to graze the lawns and meadow areas. Geese began to break off into pairs as ponds opened up during the last third of February. Interesting bird sightings included a bald eagle flying over, and a hermit thrush on February 16. Migrating sandhill crane flocks began to pass over beginning on the 21st. A small group of white-throated sparrows in the eastern part of the main forest were the first observed on the preserve this year. The first red-winged blackbirds arrived, and eastern bluebirds became a more consistent presence in the last part of February.

This male eastern bluebird seemed to be staking a claim in a corner of the grounds adjacent to a pair of bluebird houses.

This male eastern bluebird seemed to be staking a claim in a corner of the grounds adjacent to a pair of bluebird houses.

Fox squirrels fed heavily from Norway spruce cones in the south forest, and on tree buds elsewhere. Skunk and deer activity was much as described for January. The preserve’s deer minimally are a group of 3 does, a group of 2 deer which occasionally associate with those does, and a single buck. The snow was never deep enough to discourage raccoons. A mink used a den off the south edge of the pond in the preserve’s northwest corner.

Along the way during the owl nest search I found this curiosity.

Along the way during the owl nest search I found this curiosity.

The deer pelvic bone was well gnawed by rodents.

The deer pelvic bone was well gnawed by rodents.

The bone has been on this buckthorn twig long enough for the twig to grow several long branches.

The bone has been on this buckthorn twig long enough for the twig to grow several long branches.

The large area of restoration brush clearing in the main forest was expanded greatly by District staff, generally following the route of the new trail mapped in the preserve’s master plan. Among the more interesting plants encountered during the owl nest search were two of the most massive black walnuts I have ever seen, and a prickly-stemmed greenbrier (Smilax tamnoides).

Opening the Forest

by Carl Strang

As I mentioned in the January summary, a team is performing some restoration clearing in the northwest portion of the main forest at St. James Farm Forest Preserve. They are removing invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle shrubs, and taking down some dead trees.

The cleared area extends north to the open zone along the stream.

The cleared area extends north to the open zone along the stream.

Flagging tape in the photo’s upper right was there before this project began (an enlarged version of each photo appears if you click on it). A string of such markers follows the route of a proposed new trail in the preserve master plan. I imagine this clearing in part is setting the stage for that trail’s creation. If so, the removal of dead trees along that route is a safety measure.

Here you can see that beyond the clearing, the forest is choked with invasives. That is what much of the area looked like before the project began.

Here you can see that beyond the clearing, the forest is choked with invasives. That is what much of the area looked like before the project began.

Continuing a counterclockwise turn, this view shows the extent of the clearing. The pale area is an ash pile where cut brush was burned.

Continuing a counterclockwise turn, this view shows the extent of the clearing. The pale area is an ash pile where cut brush was burned.

A final view shows some of the large oaks that dominate this forest.

A final view shows some of the large oaks that dominate this forest.

I am very much looking forward to seeing what native plants will be released by this clearing. There is practically no garlic mustard evident here, so recovery could be swift.

St. James Farm January Summary

by Carl Strang

Part of my preserve monitoring practice is to write a monthly summary of observations. Today I am sharing the one from January just past:

Most of January was seasonably cold, with significant warming the last few days of the month. Little snow fell, on two occasions about an inch at a time.

Fox squirrels enjoyed the occasional sunny days, and feasted on the abundant walnuts.

Fox squirrels enjoyed the occasional sunny days, and feasted on the abundant walnuts.

Fresh snow at the beginning of the year permitted a general assessment of mammal activity in the preserve. Raccoons appear to be more abundant here than at other preserves I have monitored, with the greatest concentration of activity in the northern portion of the main forest. Skunks were surprisingly active through January, coming out even on nights when the temperature dropped into the teens. This is in contrast to other preserves, where overnight temperatures in the 30’s, at least, were required until the start of the mating season in February. A couple chipmunks also emerged from their holes, likewise unusual in mid-winter. At least one mink includes the stream and the northern portion of the main forest in its territory. Cottontails were scattered throughout, though their activity was mainly around the forest edges. A very few opossums, perhaps no more than 4-5, were active on the preserve. Meadow voles, short-tailed shrews and white-footed mice are common, and occasionally I encountered tracks of masked shrews (vole, mouse, and small shrew identifications based on habitat and regional abundance as opposed to prairie vole, deer mouse and least shrew alternative possibilities). Two domestic cats occasionally moved through the northern edge of the forest, possibly connected to the houses off the preserve’s NE corner.

This coyote caught a meadow vole shortly after I took this photo.

This coyote caught a meadow vole shortly after I took this photo.

Coyotes covered the entire preserve. Early in January I watched a slightly scruffy looking individual with much red and black in its fur catch and consume a vole in the meadow alongside the entrance drive. At the end of January, a coyote with much more of a white color dominance, very alert and fat looking, passed through the western part of the forest. Tracks revealed that two coyotes occasionally hunt together. I did not detect a consistent activity pattern in the deer. At times 4-5 moved together, that group size suggesting does. Elsewhere, single sets with the foot placement of bucks indicated at least one individual of that gender remains on the preserve.

Canada geese in DuPage County are grazers in winter.

Canada geese in DuPage County are grazers in winter.

Geese maintained a roost at south Blackwell through the month. Most mornings they flew over St. James Farm heading east, but occasionally a few dozens to a few hundred stopped and grazed the preserve’s lawns and meadows.

Part of a large goose flock feeding on a SJF lawn.

Part of a large goose flock feeding on a SJF lawn.

Over a hundred mallards utilized the newly reconfigured stream bed in the last half of January. One of them attempted to choke down a leopard frog that apparently had been unable to tunnel deep enough into the rocky stream edge when the weather turned cold in December. On another day a coot joined the ducks in the stream. The only pileated woodpecker observation during the month was one calling in the western forest on January 4.

White-breasted nuthatches are common in this preserve’s forests.

White-breasted nuthatches are common in this preserve’s forests.

Cardinals and chickadees began to sing, and downy woodpeckers to drum, in the last half of the month. There are at least 7 chickadee groups of various sizes scattered over the preserve. 1-2 adult red-tailed hawks frequently hunted the preserve’s meadows.

A red-tailed hawk scans a meadow for vole movements.

A red-tailed hawk scans a meadow for vole movements.

St. James Farm received a gratifying amount of restoration attention in January, with seeds scattered over the meadow or prairie area north of the stream, and the clearing of buckthorn and other undesirable woody plants from an extensive portion of the western forest.

 

Bush Cicadas

by Carl Strang

Illinois has lost nearly all the remnants of its original prairie. Thanks to the efforts of conservation agencies and private organizations you can find prairies to enjoy, but these are restoration projects for the most part. Restored prairies are nice gardens, but they lack a significant portion of the animal life. It’s a mistake to assume that “if you build it they will come.” Too many obligate prairie insects and other animals are not good dispersers. The highest priority has to be preserving the remnants, when there is a choice between devoting resources to that or to developing restorations.

A case in point is the prairie cicada, which I have featured here in the past. Another is the bush cicada. I made a trip south of the Chicago region last week to get some experience with that species, so I would know what to listen and look for in my 22-county survey area. A 2-hour drive took me to the southern fringe of Iroquois County, to the Loda Prairie State Nature Preserve.

This remnant is only 12 acres, but its quality is excellent.

This remnant is only 12 acres, but its quality is excellent.

The term “charismatic fauna” is over-used. The bush cicada is the first Illinois insect I have encountered to which I would apply that term.

For one thing, they are big and colorful.

For one thing, they are big and colorful.

They also are noisy like the other species in genus Neotibicen (formerly Tibicen, the change justified in a paper just out this year from the UConn cicada group plus an Australian researcher). I was pleased to find bush cicadas are fully as audible as our familiar Neotibicen species.

Linne’s cicada, for instance.

Linne’s cicada, for instance.

The song is like a slowed lyric cicada song, the pulse rate closer to that of Linne’s but with sharp, separate pulses. The singing was in bouts, with sometimes 10 minutes of silence between, so that the males seemed to cue their singing off of one another. They also were very active, many of the males flying to a new perch after every song. Though their flight generally was well controlled, once one bounced off the side of my head.

A male bush cicada in full song.

A male bush cicada in full song.

In the following days I sought them in several Chicago region counties, without success. The silence of those prairie remnants, some suffering from invasion by gray dogwood and other problem plants, was a sad contrast to Loda Prairie. In fairness, though, the bush cicada is primarily a southern and western species that may never have reached into the Chicago region. That won’t keep me from continuing to seek it here, though.

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