Introduction to St. James Farm III: Forest, Field, Restoration

by Carl Strang

The dominant wild habitat at St. James Farm Forest Preserve is its forest, the largest wooded block in the western half of DuPage County to survive from the original land survey to the present day.

[SJF forest 1. Caption: Portions of the forest are dominated by red oaks, some of which are huge. This is very unusual in DuPage County. ]

Portions of the forest are dominated by red oaks, some of which are huge. This is very unusual in DuPage County.

White and bur oaks, more typical of the county’s woodlands historically, are well represented as well.

White and bur oaks, more typical of the county’s woodlands historically, are well represented as well.

Not as big as the oaks, but equally remarkable, is this ironwood. It has a stem diameter of 11 inches.

Not as big as the oaks, but equally remarkable, is this ironwood. It has a stem diameter of 11 inches.

Ironwood seldom grows big enough to become part of the canopy.

Ironwood seldom grows big enough to become part of the canopy.

Significant portions of the forest recently have been cleared of invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle, and a first response has been a heavy growth of white snakeroot, a native forest annual.

Significant portions of the forest recently have been cleared of invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle, and a first response has been a heavy growth of white snakeroot, a native forest annual.

Trails ultimately will be improved to provide ready access through the preserve.

Here a recently constructed trail curves through a meadow. It also extends into the southern part of the forest.

Here a recently constructed trail curves through a meadow. It also extends into the southern part of the forest.

At the moment, the northern part of the preserve is closed as a major restoration project proceeds.

The focus of the project is this stream, once a straight ditch, now improved with meanders and streambed improvements.

The focus of the project is this stream, once a straight ditch, now improved with meanders and streambed improvements.

Following the ensuing growth and development of that area will be one theme of my monitoring observations to come.

 

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Ten Toads A-Trilling

by Carl Strang

As the western chorus frogs began to wind down their extended breeding season at Mayslake Forest Preserve, the American toads were getting underway with their briefer one.

Like the chorus frogs, toads come to water only to breed, spending the rest of the warm months foraging in upland habitats. I find their beautiful trilling choruses to be a calming reminder of the warm season to come. American toads need a few years to grow, in contrast to the rapidly maturing chorus frogs. Nevertheless, the ongoing restoration work at the stream corridor marsh is paying off with the toad population as well. This year I have a minimum count of 10 singing male toads in two locations, many more than the high of 3 in a single location I noted last year.

Controlled Burn South Savanna

by Carl Strang

Before last week’s winds became strong, a crew conducted a controlled burn of the south savanna and an adjacent small meadow area at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

This is the first time that slope above May’s Lake has been burned, as far as I know. It was brushy beneath the oaks and other trees for 10 years, and had been a lawn before that. It was cleared of brush two Januarys ago. Enough leaf litter accumulated last fall to make the burn possible.

The fire moved slowly, consuming the litter and hopefully damaging the invasive herbs and shrubs, while apparently not harming the trees.

I like to take advantage of burns to see what they reveal. In the meadow area between the savanna and the off-leash dog area parking lot, I noted exposed vole tunnels.

There also was a little cluster of bones.

The size of the jaw bones, and their high-crowned molar pattern, revealed that they once were part of a muskrat.

This was on the side of a dry slope, too far from muskrat habitat to represent a brief terrestrial foraging trip.

My best guess is that this was a dispersing animal. Such muskrats often make long journeys over land, which exposes them to all sorts of hazards. The remaining bones revealed nothing I could read to indicate whether this animal had lost its life to a predator, disease or getting struck by a car on one of the nearby roads.

Chorus Frog Population Jump

by Carl Strang

Our most abundant frog, locally, is the western chorus frog. They are small, and well camouflaged, so we know them mainly from their loud singing in the early spring. Their song is reminiscent of the sound of a thumbnail run slowly over a comb’s teeth, and often they gather in numbers so large that counting them is tricky. Even when concentrated in the small ponds they prefer for breeding, they are difficult to see.

Chorus frogs are sensitive to motion and vibration, and quick to shut up. Holding still, with only the head protruding from the water and often sheltered by overhanging vegetation, they are a challenge to spot.

Last year, my first at Mayslake Forest Preserve, chorus frogs gathered in only one location, the stream corridor marsh. My highest count of singing males was 12. This year I was pleasantly surprised to find many more. Conservative counting has given me a minimum of 22 male frogs at the stream corridor marsh. Furthermore, 3-5 have been singing in each of two other locations. The closest of these is at least 1000 chorus-frog-hops in a straight line from the stream corridor marsh, the other at least twice that far.

A little digging produced the fact that chorus frogs can reach sexual maturity within one year. This allows them to make a rapid response to favorable environmental conditions. While it is true that last spring was relatively wet, keeping the stream corridor marsh well filled for the entire season, some of the credit for this goes to Mayslake’s volunteer restoration stewards, Conrad Fialkowski and Jacqui Gleason. They have been clearing brush and girdling trees around the marsh for several years.

This removal of woody plants eliminates most of the water-sucking transpiration that otherwise would dry out the marsh. The result has been improved conditions for marsh and wet-prairie plants in that part of the preserve and, I believe, a jump in the western chorus frog population.

On Monday there were further ecological ramifications. A group of 6 hooded mergansers and a pied-billed grebe spent much of the day on the stream corridor marsh. They were actively diving for food, and coming up with tiny items too small for me to identify. These could have been insect larvae, as there have been diverse and abundant dragonflies at that marsh in summer. The birds’ food also may have included some recently hatched chorus frog tadpoles.

Incidently, the stream corridor marsh attracted the attention of nature enthusiast Ed Teune, who posted a nice video of the marsh and a singing chorus frog (close up, with audio) on U-Tube.

Winter Departs from Mayslake

by Carl Strang

The time has come to say farewell to winter. At this time of year most of us are glad to turn our backs on the coldest season, but it had its beauty. Here are some views of Mayslake Forest Preserve’s stream about a month ago.

A forest preserve district crew took advantage of the frozen ground to clear unwanted brush from part of the 31st Street Woods.

The ice finally melted away from May’s Lake in mid-March.

Enjoy the American tree sparrows. They won’t be with us much longer.

The traces of last year’s nesting season remain, including this Baltimore oriole nest (first mentioned as it was built, here).

Here’s the current state of another old oriole nest.

This is the one a squirrel helped me find. It also is the one that produced a cowbird. Winter traditionally was a time of storytelling, and seeing those nests has brought back their stories to me through the winter. But now I’m looking forward to the return of the orioles from the south, and the coming season’s new stories. In the meantime Maylake is experiencing many earlier signs of spring that I’ll share in the next post.

Another One Bit the Dust

by Carl Strang

Restoration work that clears ground, whether through controlled burns or brush removal, can reveal stories from the past in the form of skeletal remains. Last week Mayslake Forest Preserve restoration co-steward Jacqui Gleason showed me part of a skeleton exposed through recent brush clearing performed by Forest Preserve District staff in the prairie area near the stream.

Fuzzy brown feathers around the feet, as well as the size and proportion of the bones, identify the remains as belonging to a great horned owl.

I don’t have the skill to age the remains, either in the sense of when the bird died or how old it was. Most animals die young, so if I had to guess I would say this probably was a youngster that died in its first year. If so, it wasn’t from 2009. As I reported earlier, the most recent great horned owl nest on the preserve met with tragedy.

Jacqui, and Mayslake Restoration

by Carl Strang

When Jacqui Pearl got married, she had a decision to make. You see, the love of her life’s last name was Gleason. Older readers, at least, will see that this could be problematic. She chose to go with Jacqui Gleason. The things we do for love.

Jacqui 1b

A few years ago, Jacqui joined the Mayslake Forest Preserve garden volunteer team. Quickly she realized that this did not provide enough work to satisfy her, and at the same time she became aware of the impressive restoration progress being made out beyond the mansion grounds by Conrad Fialkowski. I can think of no better word to describe Jacqui and Conrad than dynamos. They are out there at least a couple times a week, often more, in all kinds of weather, through the entire year. Sometimes they work together, sometimes they are there individually, always they work hard, clearing brush, collecting seeds, planting seeds, assessing results.

Incidentally, another side to Jacqui is that she works with Chicago’s Lyric opera, dressing the women performers, a job which sometimes entails frantic quick costume changes in the middle of a scene (she mentions the pride that she and her colleagues have in effecting a complete makeover in 60 seconds or less).

Mayslake’s prairie, savanna and wetland areas are coming along nicely thanks to the dedication of Conrad and Jacqui. In the past year they have expanded the cleared area around the edges of the north savanna, fought off brush invasions in prairie and wetlands, collected and broadcast loads of seeds, and documented several newly appeared flowers in the savanna and prairie. Last winter they were assisted by District staff through a significant clearing of brush in the north savanna. The result of all this dedication is that Mayslake has one of the best restoration projects going in the entire Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.

Fruits of Restoration

by Carl Strang

In earlier posts I have written about the restoration work going on at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Today I want to share some of the positive results that already are visible. The prairie was burned in late March, and as usual looked like a desolate moonscape afterward.

Mayslake burn 4b

This week that same area is green with vigorous growth.

Prairie 19MY 2b

Meanwhile, the slope between the friary and May’s Lake has greened with diverse plants.

Friary hill spring 4b

In places there are abundant oak seedlings, the potential next generation that had no chance beneath the dense buckthorn and honeysuckle brush that was cleared out over the winter. Members of both the white and red oak groups are visible here.

Oak seedlings b

In addition, Virginia waterleaf is flowering in good numbers all along the slope.

Waterleaf 1b

Toward the bottom of the hill some wild geraniums have begun to bloom.

Wild geranium b

Nearby are some Rubus which key out to common dewberry.

Common dewberry b

A red-osier dogwood was one of the woody plants carefully avoided by the brush-clearing crew, and it is flowering.

Red osier dogwood b

Earlier I showed the abundant trout lilies, toothworts, three species of buttercups, dutchman’s breeches, trilliums, violets, wood anemones and so forth. More will follow.

Garlic Mustard Study Update

by Carl Strang

 

Since treating the garlic mustard plots , I have returned weekly to check on them. As of April 16, the seedlings have barely progressed beyond the cotyledon stage.

 

gm-seedlings-2b

 

Untreated (control) plants continue to add leaves and expand in size, though they remain rosettes.

 

gm-plot-1-10ap-3b

 

Some plants have survived the treatments, either because they were so tiny that I missed them or because pinching them off did not in fact kill them.

 

gm-plot-1-10ap-2b

 

Later I will examine those survivors in the pinch treatments to see which of these possibilities was the case. A few new plants have appeared each week since the treatment. As of April 16, a total of 16 plants had appeared in the 9 squares where I had pulled plants, and 76 plants had appeared in the 9 pinch treatment squares. Where I had counted 418 seedlings in pinch treatments and 450 in pull treatment squares at the start, by April 16 these numbers were 838 and 944, respectively. At the end of the study period I will apply statistical tests to determine whether these differences are due to chance or to real differences between the treatments. I also will return next year, to see if more seedlings emerge in pull treatment squares than in the others.

Garlic Mustard Removal Study

by Carl Strang

 

One of the challenges facing people trying to restore biodiversity to native woodlands is invasive plants. Earlier  I outlined the general problem in the context of shrubs. The herbaceous plant causing the most trouble in our woodlands is garlic mustard. Garlic mustard is a biennial. Seeds sprout in spring, grow into rosettes of leaves that survive the winter, then the plants grow up, flower and produce seeds in their second spring. At this point in the season the rosettes look like this.

 

gm-rosette-b

 

When I was at Willowbrook I undertook to remove garlic mustard from the fenced area that contains the outdoor animal exhibit. When I was transferred to Fullersburg I did the same in the Wildflower Trail area. Both were high quality areas in terms of the native plants that were present, but garlic mustard was expanding, and suppressing the native wildflowers. I started pulling out the garlic mustard each spring, and was gratified by the quick recovery by diverse native species. Then I began trying fall and winter pulling, and got good results with that, too.

 

My annual review of the scientific literature last December turned up a study* describing success in controlling garlic mustard by clipping the plants rather than uprooting them. I decided to try a study of my own, that would compare results of uprooting plants versus breaking them off, early and late in the season. Yes, a study had been done. But replication is important in science. I wanted to see for myself that new plants can’t grow up from the decapitated roots. Also, the earliest the other researchers had clipped their plants was late April. I wanted to try it earlier. My move to Mayslake was timely, because the restoration program is relatively advanced there, and I can focus on research rather than rescue.

 

I have set up 3 study plots, each 3 by 3 meters. I used large nails to mark the corners.

 

garlic-mustard-plot-corner-b

 

When the time came to treat the plots, I temporarily outlined the plot with bright orange string.

 

gm-plot-1-pre-treatment-b

 

Each of the 9 square meters in each plot gets one of 3 treatments: uprooting, breaking off below the lowest leaves in mid-March, and a control that will be left until the plants are about to flower. At that point I will cut them off below the lowest leaves. This last treatment follows a practice recommended by some experienced restoration specialists, who discourage uprooting because it may stimulate germination of garlic mustard seeds in the soil. I used a random number generator (easy to find on the Internet) to determine which squares got each treatment.

 

Here is an experimental square from which plants were removed.

 

gm-plot-3-post-treatment-clipped-3b

 

And here is a control square with the plants still in place.

 

gm-plot-3-post-treatment-control-2

 

I counted the plants in each square as I treated them. In the three study plots combined the total number of pulled plants was 1395, pinched off total 1617, and control plants 1176. The overall average density was 155 plants per square meter. Now, I wait and see what will happen. I’ll provide an update later.

 

(It should be obvious, but I’ll state it anyway, that I could do this kind of manipulation on public land as a forest preserve district employee, but still had to get clearance to do so.)

 

*Here is the reference for the study I mentioned: Pardini, Eleanor A., Brittany J. Teller, and Tiffany M. Knight. 2008. Consequences of density dependence for management of a stage-structured invasive plant (Alliaria petiolata). Am. Midl. Nat. 160:310-322.

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