Saturday, June 29, 2013

In Grass

It seems to always happen this way: dates for sampling tallgrass prairie coincide with the first week of Wimbledon matches which are aired during the day (when I'm on the prairie). Text messages came pouring in all week with news of the upsets-- Nadal, Federer, Tsonga, Sharapova, all grass court specialists, and all knocked out in the very early rounds. My bracket is a red streaked mess with only 59% correct on the Men's side. There's a problem at Wimbledon that isn't receiving much airtime. The Olympics took place at Wimbledon last summer, and there's a new Grounds Supervisor in charge this year. The grass is slicker than usual, which is why all of these grass specialists are slipping all over the place. Having conducted vegetation sampling on the same prairie damaged by overgrazing since 2008, I can recognize a problem with grass in this arena, just as Maria can notice problems in her grass world.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Woodland Aesthetics

Stepping out into the warm Saturday morning deep in the heart of the Salem Plateau, I kept hoping the clouds would break to reveal a beautiful sunny day. Alas, they never did, and every photo I took that day was cast in a dull gray light. Despite the lack of contrast due to the white sky all socked in with clouds, the woodland setting remained stunning.

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to hike through less stunning woods with colleagues who had never seen restored fire mediated woodlands. "Woods are woods," one said, looking into the sugar maple-Japanese honeysuckle-deer problem woods. I explained the difference between mere green space like the woods we were walking through, and true woodlands, places that have seen fire in recent history, places with hundreds of species of vascular plants. Some woods are so out of context with their historic character that they may not be restorable, especially urban green spaces surrounded by development so thick that no hope exists of returning fire to the management regime.

Pictures speak louder than words in this case, so I scrolled through a series of photos from last Saturday, photos of often burned woods, of vascular plants my colleagues had never seen before. Despite the gray day in the woods, it was decided that no, they had never seen any woods like those in the Salem Plateau before. Those woodlands are lovely, diverse, and inviting, making me want to hold the proverbial reins on my proverbial horse 200 years ago and say "Whoa."

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Vegetation Sampling Begins!

Oh, what a fun week of running my 50m tape across glades and carefully placing my homemade .25m2 quadrat tool repeatedly around the beautiful assortment of native glade flora to assess cover values of each plant in each plot. This year's sampling events takes me (initially) to glade restoration projects, areas that I've written about all winter wherein colleagues cut, piled, and burned green cedars over the course of five months. With the recent politicization of prescribed fire, however, these crews were most unfortunately unable to acquire burn permits to finish burning their slash piles (even when it was actively raining outside, we were out of drought status, and fuel moistures were incredibly high). Today, we're left with some awful red needle stage slash piles that will have to wait until snow on the ground to burn. [If they can get a burn permit. At one point this past winter, with five inches of snow on the ground, the local fire department wouldn't issue burn permits because wind speeds averaged 5-10mph. Hence, red needle slash piles -which no one should ever have to manage- litter the site. The dangers of red needle stage slash is that live red needle embers can travel over two miles on a windy day,and they burn so hot that they can sterilize the fragile glade soils. Burn when cedars are green and embers don't move around, for starters, and the skeletons burn completely. Wait too long until the needles turn gray and you're invariably left with massive skeleton piles that are absolutely unmanageable.]

And so, Tuesday morning began at 6:30 on a glade that 6 months ago was socked in with cedars with a scattering of little bluestem, highly eroded soil from years of abuse by grazing, patches of Liatris cylindracea, some Arennaria stricta, other little glade plants that may be recoverable if you cut and burn cedars. This glade restoration project occurred on 22 acres of a big bald, a typical "barrens" landscape in this part of the Ozarks, though few of these high, broad, flat dolomite glades have been restored in the area. Thanks to a long history of abuse from grazing by domestic livestock, we graded each section of the glade from B to D quality (very few if any examples of A quality glades exist after a history of grazing). Our first transects ran across a D quality glade that wasn't even slated for restoration because it was so degraded. Enthusiasm took the upper hand of the crews with chainsaws in early March, so it was free of cedars (and very little else), so we set up transects. Why not. Let's see what happens when you remove cedars from a totally overgrazed glade that hardly has any soil on it. There's very little cover of plant life, so we whipped through the transects pretty quickly on the D grade section of the glade:

Because this was the last area cut in late April, light availability is a new concept to this trashed out part of the glade. Lots of little Houstonia nigricans that may not mature this year, tons of Heliotropium tenellum, a few patches of little bluestem. Obviously, fire won't carry through an area like this, so we'll wait a few years until we get a thatch layer and then take the conservative route regarding burning. In the early stages of glade restoration in highly damaged systems, it's most vital to restore the soil layer through the development of a grass matrix. Even though this trashed out glade is in restoration mode, I wouldn't recommend a 3 to 5 year rotation of fire; I'd let the grass come back if the propagules are still there, let the thatch form, burn once every 5 to 7 years in the early stages. Throughout the transects in this part of the glade, bare soil accounted for over 60% of total cover. Not even a weedy Draba existed in this part of the glade.

Moving on to C grade glades, sampling grew fun again. These areas had far fewer hogwire fencing remnants and a scattering of good glade flora: Silphium terebinthinaceum, Sporobolus asper (grass!), lots of pretty coneflowers (which tend to explode in the absence of matrix species, so glades with little else than Echinacea paradoxa aren't really great glades because they probably don't have a lot of soil left on them. Note roadcuts in the Ozarks covered in Echinacea and Missouri evening primrose, both colonizers of scraped soil environments).

Bare soil still accounted for about 40% of the average quadrat. However, the C grade glades are much more restorable than the D grade glades since that grass matrix still exists. Two months ago, this area consisted of wall-to-wall cedars.

We ended sampling this site by 11am with a visit through a little woodland that saw some hardwood thinning (mostly little hickories) and onto the better quality restorable glade that represented the fun part of my morning. Lots of coneflowers, some Aster laevis, Aster oblongifolius, warm season grasses, even the annual weeds like Arennaria patula that took off like gangbusters this wet spring following last year's drought.

Cover values increased, species richness increased, grasses formed the matrix in this section of glade. There's hope for the rest of the glade, but it takes patience and diligence to restore a highly damaged ecosystem. Let's start at the very beginning: cut and burn cedars and keep cows out of native ecosystems.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Besides morels

There are probably very few Ozarkers who wouldn't recognize a morel when they happened to find one in the woods. Why, morels are things of lore in Missouri, the subject of various types of folk art, tall tales, and of history. When the morels appeared in my backyard last April, there was no need to look them up in a mushroom field guide. But all of the recent rains have not only been a boon for my Desmodiums which are now showing up all over the place, but for a handful of other mushrooms that we haven't seen in a couple of years.

At the base of a misshapen red oak, one large chicken of the woods appeared two years ago. The front yard has a substrate of gravel, roofing tiles, and other trash left behind during the renovation of this old property. No fancy loamy soils here. During the drought last year, we never saw the mushroom. This year, it has exploded all around the base of the tree, three large, stately mushrooms. I don't know what animal normally eats chicken of the woods, but whomever it is does not visit my yard. I left the morels in situ this year, and the squirrels seemed to enjoy them quite well.

In the far back corner, past the chinquapin oak, there's a small strip of virtually bare soil, part of a fireline that normally only harbors a handful of Polygonums and twigs that are raked away each October in preparation for fire. I didn't notice this vaguely creepy Xylaria back there, common name of Dead Man's Fingers (for obvious reasons). They're living off twigs and duff of deciduous trees.The neighbor who lives behind me, jealous of the morels in the yard, is always excited about new plants and mushrooms that show up a stone's throw from his rental property. He was a little horrified by the Dead Man's Fingers, but immediately asked what everyone always asks: can you eat it? I don't believe they're edible, but even if they were, they'd share the same fate as the edible mushrooms in the yard: take one, but leave the bulk for the natural processes at play and at work to conduct business as usual.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

After the Rain

By 7:45 this morning, the rain ended in the woods I was birding,leaving behind sodden grass and forbs and a very muddy trail. I thought of early June 2012 today, the time of the summer when the drought began to settle in for the long haul. Today, with all the multiple inches of rain the Ozarks have received in the past two weeks, vegetation was thicker, taller, and more robust than I've seen in years. Glades are awash in coneflower blooms this week, and the field sparrows and prairie warblers are building their nests.