Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Spotted Salamanders

I’ve had exceptional luck finding salamanders at Blue Jay Barrens so far this year. The most recent species to enter the breeding pond is the Spotted Salamander.

This is the first time in many years that I’ve found the Spotted Salamander en route to the pond. I most commonly see this species after it has already made it into the water.

The past month has produced several warm nights with long duration gentle rains. This, combined with the fact that soils are both unfrozen and saturated with water, has produced ideal conditions for amphibian migrations. The conditions are also ideal for humans anxious to witness these migrations.

This is the first year that I have managed to find multiple individuals of the species. Males are generally the first to arrive at the breeding pond, and each salamander I found was a male. The question now is when the weather will be suitable for the females to make their migration. The forecast for the next week or so is for cold, dry conditions. The males may just have to wait for a while before they get company.

The temperature was around 50° F the night I found these salamanders. All were making rapid progress towards the pond. This one paused just long enough for one quick shot before it slid into the pond and headed for deeper water. Now, any fresh egg masses I find of the pond should be those of the Spotted Salamander.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Blooming Leavenworthia uniflora

Leavenworthia uniflora is also setting a new early bloom record this year.  First bloom appeared on March 3, about ten days earlier than the previous record.

Leavenworthia has a basal cluster of leaves that develop horizontally outward from a central point. The collection of leaves generally does a pretty good job of shading out competitive vegetation, at least near the center of the whorl.

The plants all have a fine collection of developing flower buds. Each flower will be held aloft individually atop a thin, branchless stalk.

This individual grew to resemble a tightly woven beverage coaster. Despite its slightly unusual growth pattern, there are still plenty of buds developing.

None of the other Leavenworthia plants have yet reached this stage of development. I expect it will be a couple of weeks before the next plant in line begins to display blooms. By the end of March though, I expect all the plants will be flowering profusely.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Blooming Draba cuneifolia

The Blue Jay Barrens Draba cuneifolia have set a new record for early blooming.  First full blooms appeared on February 26, more than two weeks ahead of the prior record.

In some places the Draba almost completely carpet the ground.  Not a bad showing for a plant considered to be Threatened in Ohio.  Lack of snow cover and above average temperatures allowed these plants to put on some impressive growth over the winter.  A couple of really cold nights resulted in a discoloration in some of the leaves, but that hasn’t slowed them down any.

This looks like an aerial shot of a forest landscape, but the photo was taken with the bottom of the camera sitting on the ground.  All of the plants are Draba cuneifolia.  With nothing in the shot for scale, it’s hard to realize that the largest plant in the bunch stands less than an inch tall.

Only a few plants currently have open flowers, but there will soon be more.  The majority of the plants have at least one bud opened far enough to show the white petals inside.

There are also plants that are at a stage typical for this time of year.  These buds will most likely open around the middle of March, a more normal time to expect the first flowers to appear.  A little frost or snow won’t slow these plants down now.  I’m expecting an impressive seed crop this year.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Marbled Salamander

Yesterday, I added a new species to the Blue Jay Barrens salamander list.  Marbled Salamander, Ambystoma opacum, is a species that I read about and was fascinated by while I was in the fifth grade.  After decades of waiting, this is my first ever wild encounter with this species.

Like other Ambystomas, Marbled Salamanders utilize temporary pools as egg laying sites.  The thing that sets this species apart though, is the fact that it breeds in the fall and places eggs in the pool while the site is still dry.  Eggs hatch when winter rains fill the pools.  This gives the Marbled Salamander larvae a head start and slight advantage over those species that place their eggs in the pool later in the season.  Marbled Salamander larvae can sometimes be serious predators of smaller salamander larvae and frog tadpoles.

The black and white coloring of this animal is quite striking. Thick rain clouds cast a decidedly gloomy pall over the forest floor, but this bright little salamander glowed as if carrying an inner light. If the coloration is intended as a type of camouflage, it was certainly falling short of the mark on this day.

It’s certainly exciting to have this species is a local resident. I hope to encounter many more of its kind in the years to come.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Advantage: Invasives

Invasive shrubs manage to overwhelm many ecosystems by more effectively exploiting the resources available in their environment.  They are currently busy demonstrating one of the characteristics that allows them to claim such a dominant role in any ecosystem they occupy.  Plants use sunlight captured by green leaf area to fuel the photosynthetic process that supplies the energy needed for plant growth and reproduction.  Invasive shrubs, like the Bush Honeysuckle shown above, produce leaves quite early in the year and hold those leaves into late fall.

Our native plant species have evolved a sequence growth that allows each species to capture the sunlight necessary to its survival.  Spring wildflowers generally complete their growth early in the year and by the time the trees have developed their leaves, the early plants have stored the energy they need to produce seed and carry on to the next year.  At Blue Jay Barrens, the leaves of invasive shrubs develop in advance of most of the early wildflowers and deprive the native species of their needed sunlight.  Eventually, the invasives form a solid thicket and the natives disappear.

The vining Japanese Honeysuckle does the bush type one better.  In some years, the previous year’s leaves remain green through the winter.  The leaves to the upper left are from last growing season and the rest are new to this month.  As long as the leaves are green, photosynthesis can occur.  While native plants are in their winter dormancy, Japanese Honeysuckle grows continually stronger and more able to compete for a place in the landscape.

Autumn Olive is quick to take advantage on the slightest winter thaw.  The long leaf season of these invasives allows them to put on some tremendous growth.  This four foot tall specimen represents only two years of growth.  In that short time it went from a seedling, barely reaching above the leaf litter, to a major producer of shade.

These leaves are the result of about two weeks growth.  The growth will soon begin to elongate into the production of new stems.  The shrub could easily double its height and quadruple its width before the end of this growing season.  That is, it could have if I had not cut it down and sprayed the stump with herbicide.

Seedlings may take a couple of years to develop a root system capable of sustaining rapid top growth.  This seedling managed to hold onto one of its leaves for the entire winter.  The benefits from this one leaf have probably greatly increased its competitive edge.  If I hadn’t cut and sprayed this little guy, it could have reached over two feet tall by the end of summer.

Multiflora Rose is another that is quick to put its leaves into play.  Frosts and freezes may cause some leaf damage to these shrubs, but the damage is generally restricted to shrubs growing in the open.  Shrubs growing beneath the canopy of taller plants are often protected from frost damage.  If some leaves are killed, they are quickly replaced.  All of these species are highly susceptible to a cut stump application of glyphosate during this early growth season.  I usually carry my pruners and spray bottle with me everywhere I go during this time of year.  Fortunately, I am now only dealing with newly arrived invasives, so a pair of hand pruners is all I need for the job.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Random Mowing

It has been a couple of years since I’ve done any large-scale field mowing with the brush mowers. For about 12 years I followed a planned three year rotation that had me mowing five to seven acres each year. The sole reason for the mowing was to locate and eliminate trees and shrubs invading the field. I purchased my first DR field and brush mower in 1992. That mower, which I refer to as the DR or The Doctor, followed the old Bachtold Brothers design. The DR was lightweight and would mow practically anywhere, but only had one speed, moderately slow, and with age its performance began to decline. In 2009 I purchased the newer model shown above, which I generally referred to as JR or Junior. JR took over the duties of field mowing while the DR retired to more lightweight duties.

When I first began mowing fields, I would mow over the invasive plant and mark the location of the stump using a 4”x5” red plastic flag mounted atop a 3 foot wire shaft. In the early years I was averaging about 750 flags per acre. Mowing was done in November and December, and I would return to the fields in April or May to apply glyphosate herbicide to the developing stump sprouts. This strategy worked extremely well in fields that were experiencing a heavy infestation of invasive woody plants. In recent years, most areas of the fields are experiencing invasion rates low enough to allow me to individually treat the invaders without a wholesale mowing of the field. Most of my current mowing is done in small isolated areas that still require a more heavy-handed management approach.

Here is a good example of a small area requiring some special attention. This long triangular area wedged between an old fence row and an intermittent Creek has some special needs that are best met by mowing. This end of the field is crowded with Dwarf Sumac. If left unchallenged, it would eventually create an impenetrable thicket. The far end of the field was once a multiflora rose jungle. I use blue flags to call attention to special features such as holes, rocks, old fence wire, or plants that should be left untouched. In this case the blue flag identifies a small oak that is to remain in this field.

The finished product. The mowing does not kill the sumacs. After two or three mowing seasons they will once again reach the point where they will need to be knocked back. Managed in this way the sumacs pose no threat to the tallgrass or other prairie vegetation, but they are still able to produce food for the various leaf and seed eaters that seem to prefer this species.

A photo taken from this angle 10 years ago would have shown nothing but a solid wall of multiflora rose inches from your face. I have many photos of that type, but they are virtually useless as helpful before photos for documentation purposes. The massive roses went up to the point where the light-colored grass begins. Since old seeds continue to sprout to produce new plants in this location, I mow it at least every other year to help locate the new multiflora rose plants. The red flags identify young multiflora rose plants that need to be treated with herbicide. Only eight rose plants were found in this one third acre field this year. The blue ribbon marks one of several native rose plants that I am trying to encourage.

The area around the main trailhead is mowed each year. This is one of only two areas that get such attention on an annual basis.

A mixed bag of invasive shrubs once grew here, but now I only have to deal with the occasional new recruit. My primary reason for continuing to mow this small patch is to get rid of the scattered tallgrass and plant stalks that interfere with enjoying the wildflower displays occurring here during spring and early summer. The Monarda bloom is especially attractive. The floral display along with its attendant butterflies should not be sullied by a mass of year-old stalks and stems.

It’s nice to have reached a point where large-scale mowing is no longer necessary to achieve my management objectives, but I kind of miss the activity. It was good exercise and I found it relaxing to spend the day just walking round and round and round the field. Fortunately, I have plenty of other work to fill up those hours no longer needed for mowing activities.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Sick Deer

One evening last week I had an interesting encounter with a Whitetail Deer.  I had just set my tools down and was walking forward to take some before photos of a planned work area, when I spotted a buck deer about 30 feet up the hill from me.  The deer was trying to shed its antler by pushing it against a thick grape vine.  It was obvious from first glance that the buck was not exhibiting the behavior typical of a healthy deer.

The antler slipped from the vine and the deer lurched forward, the grape vine now arching above its neck.  Here it stayed for several minutes.

The deer was breathing heavily and its eyes were kept partially closed.  At this point I thought the deer might just be exhausted from trying to dislodge the stubborn antler.

After its rest, the deer circled around and came at the grape vine again.  It had no better luck this time and circled around for a third try.

Leaving the deer to its business, I went ahead and took a few photos of my planned work area.  I heard some branches breaking and turned in time to see the deer stumble away from the grape vine, get tangled in a small shrub and stagger down the hill to fall right on top of my tools.

The deer stayed down for about a minute before getting back on its feet.  Its body looks to have lost a lot of muscle.  It was here that I began wondering if the deer was just on the downhill end of a long life or if it was diseased.

After standing for a couple of minutes, the deer began to walk in a tight circle.  The video above shows part of its roundabout journey.  Before filming, I was able to sneak in and get my bow saws and tool bag out of the way, but each time I moved in, the deer lunged in my direction.  Not wanting to risk a deer related injury, I left my pole saw and gloves to fend for themselves.  The deer seems quite adept at stepping on the pole saw on each circuit.

Eventually, the deer worked its way down the trail.  In the half hour between the taking of this shot and sundown, the deer traveled about 60 feet and fell down four times.  The following morning I found the deer another 200 feet down the trail.  It was down and didn’t look like it would be getting up again.  I reported the presence of a potentially diseased deer to the local Wildlife Officer who arrived to put the deer out of its misery and collect samples to be tested for disease.