Wednesday, May 04, 2011

After a late March fire


Stepping gingerly on the mossy rocks to cross the roaring stream, I clutched my Audubon Swift series binoculars for dear life. I spent part of my insurance check from the storm on them, and I depend on them for their precision, for their clarity, two features which aid in the positive identification of those gleaning warblers high up in the canopy. Miraculously, I didn't slip. On the other bank of the stream was the end of the fireline, the same spot where I blew out my torch after a beautiful, raging late March fire. March 25th, to be precise.


I listened to my woodland songbird cds for several days before, with the dulcet tunes of Louisiana waterthrush, American redstart, blue grosbeak, and warbling vireo stuck in my head. They're all in a row, the songs introduced by a somber man's voice, "Louisiana waterthrush..." I'm rusty every May, always going back to the
Peterson cds to sort out the songs before I hear birds in the woods. As I turned off the ignition that early morning, drank the last of my third cup of coffee, I heard the churlish "tuk!" of a summer tanager and hoped I was ready for spring birding.


Yellow throated vireos, Northern parulas, worm-eating warblers, even a wood thrush in an open stand of white oaks- all these closed canopy, forest interior birds. Oh, they're all lovely creatures with remarkable songs, cool little aerobatic actions. We had burned this tract for the first time in over ten years, way off the mark for the gold standard--3 burns in 10 years. But I want to hit the fast forward on the restoration of this dissected, rich, old growth landscape. Widely spaced pines populate the broad, flat ridgetop; I saw the fire rip through the flats, and expected more response from the ground flora, just as I expected more open woodland birds on my morning survey. A crop of Solidago ulmifolia, lots of bare soil, some panic grasses, but this is not the bluestem-prairie plant pine woodland that it should be. When pine woodland flora is suppressed under thick, dense pine duff for 12 years, I am reminded that it takes a while to recover.


As the birds settled down after the morning cacaphony (all quiet but the red-eyed vireos, white-eyed vireos and parulas), I looked downward. The super steep hillsides with lovely old growth chinquapin oaks and a dog hair stand of 80 year old black oaks (relicts of open range grazing) were chocked full of quality forbs. Coreopsis palmata, Echinacea simulata, tons and tons and gobs of Silene virginiana. Scattered patches of warm season grasses dotted the ridgetop, and as far as I could see, bright patches of dappled light. We killed trees on that fire, as most spring fires are wont to do. If we didn't kill all the maples and out of context red oaks, we put them in the hospital long enough to have ample light to the woodland floor. I remain a firm believer in the power of spring fires for woodland restoration efforts. Woods wouldn't be so flammable in March if they weren't meant to burn.

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