Saturday, April 29, 2017

Searching for Slipper Orchids in the Ozarks

Stepping out of the car on a chilly and cloudy morning this week, I could see the green-up in the understory. Lots of wildflowers in bloom and lots of perennials like rattlesnake master all coming up through the burned landscape. It's been several years since I've seen this population of yellow lady slipper orchids, a super charismatic plant but one that the deer love. With a burgeoning deer population, our slipper orchid population dwindled to the point of potential extinction, so we installed large 16 ft. cattle panels to create an exclosure to see if the plants would come up inside versus outside the exclosure. For the past three years, the orchids haven't come up at all, or, they've come up but been browsed off by hungry deer before we could detect them.

Yellow lady slipper orchids are not particularly rare, but they are loyal to intact soil profiles and are generally associated with high quality natural communities. On my hike this week, we sauntered into super high quality habitat, one free of exotic species and with intact soils and a suite of other native plants. The steep slope was a nightmare to navigate in my lousy running shoes, but between the large populations of goldenseal and other moist, mesic-loving species, I was able to traverse the hillside without causing ecological damage. Step by step, don't step on plants.

We counted 34 stems this week, an increase of 34 stems from last year when we couldn't document a single plant. These lovely orchids are particularly favored by deer, which may account for the low stem counts in years' past. While I still think there are too many deer in this location, seeing so many slipper orchids is a sign that maybe the deer are on the run or lower in density than I previously thought. Spotlight counts are showing low numbers, as well. With deer populations increasing across Missouri, we need to consider that this population's low count may be erratic. It's nice to see the slipper orchids again, and their appearance correlates to the low deer density of the spotlight counts and browse surveys. Is it coincident?

Nevertheless, it was great to visit a high quality natural community to verify a population of a rare plant. Aside from the slipper orchids we also documented black and white warblers, Louisiana waterthrush, and common yellowthroat warblers. Visiting nice natural systems is always a treat, a visit to invariably see many more species than I was hoping to see. This week was not unlike the rest.

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