Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Hey, pollinators, these woods are open for business.

It was a cool morning in early June after two days of severe thunderstorms when the woodlands erupted in the lilting calls of Eastern wood pewees, so many pewees, summer tanagers, pileated woodpeckers, just too many birds to count. Coming back from two days of dodging rain in the lush Current River Hills, we took a detour on the Central Plateau to check out one of the best examples of an upland flatwoods landscape in this part of the Ozarks.

The area had been treated with fire in February, the latest of a long history of prescribed fires, including one in late April in 2013 a year when the vegetation was as advanced as early June. Most fire practitioners can tell when it's too late to burn, when the vegetation is advanced and when wildlife is setting up shop for breeding. With responsibly applied prescribed fire, when Ozark woodlands are largely dormant, there will still be some direct mortality of early emerging biota. However, for the health of the system, and for the sustainability of an ecosystem, prescribed fire on regular return intervals in healthy natural communities must continue for the viability of all plants and animals. I was personally opposed to the burn on these flatwoods in late April 2013; it was conducted much too late, and no one knows what was lost in that late fire. And that's a problem.

So I returned there this year and found the traditional floral display that makes this landscape so nice to walk through--dominated by spiderwort and penstemons with a remarkable suite of legumes and grasses, and so forth. Hopefully the area's vegetation will be sampled to track changes through the years following fire events and analysis will show fire effects on the vegetation. Nodding a head up and down and proclaiming "it looks good to me" is not science. But that day last week, it did look pretty and it was fun to see so many butterflies and bees. But what about the insects and spiders that are not pollinators? There are certain specialists studying the impacts of fire on other suites of insects, but during my hike on a nice day it was great to see so many pollinators taking advantage of the rich floral display that, yes, included five species of milkweeds.

Because most of our Ozark ecosystems are out of context with their historic character, and because nature today requires active ecosystem management to sustain biodiversity, the contrast of burned and thinned versus unburned was stark. At least the burned and thinned section, the area with all the flowers and plants and birds, spans over 3,000 acres. But I wouldn't spend a day walking through the unburned doghair even-aged stand of red oak-black oak ecological trash with an understory of leaf litter and a Virginia creeper sprout here and there. Crops of trees are not my specialty. I like plants. I like restored ecosystems that harken to a world mostly lost of highly functioning systems that have natural processes in place to shape and influence wildlife populations and all of biodiversity. Yes, I spend my time there.

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