Monday, August 31, 2009

The Hill Revisited

Have you ever noticed at the end of a hike that there are people who hang back after the goodbyes have been said and departures have begun and say something like “You mentioned a panoramic view from the top of the hill. Do we have time to go see that?” Well, in this case we do have time, so we’ll go back passed the pine trees and head up the hill. The first thing you might notice is how straight this route is and after I just told you that straight trails should be avoided. In this case the trail follows the old farm lane and that means no curves.

This ant hill has grown to intrude upon the trail. This is a wonderful hill for winter sledding. There is an abrupt drop off into the field on both sides, so sledders need to stay to the center. It’s also poor form to hit the ant hill, so a keen sled steering ability is a must here.

Passed the Redbuds the trail narrows as we near the top of The Hill. Indian Grass is beginning to crowd in on both sides of the trail.

West toward the Ohio Brush Creek Valley. A little hazy, but not the thick fog we saw in late spring. The remains of a dead Sycamore are easy to see against the dark green cedar. This is a wonderful place to watch storms approach, but you don’t want to linger here too long. This hill top is a prime location for lightening strikes.

The hill top prairie is composed primarily of short grasses. Most of the earlier flowers have finished blooming and the goldenrods and asters are just beginning.

The tree line of the woods takes on a jagged appearance as some trees fall and others prosper. The woods in the background have been periodically logged, but has always maintained near 100% canopy cover. The wooded slope showing as a mix of cedars and deciduous trees was being farmed around 1920. All the trees have sprung up since then.

Here’s the big field showing off its cover of Indian Grass. The darker green patches have a heavier population of Goldenrods. The trail we walked last week followed the tree line on the left and then cut across the field toward the pine trees in the upper right. Now we’ll have to call this walk finished. I have other things I need to get on to.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Johnson Grass

This tall grass is Johnson Grass, Sorghum halepense, which is legally defined as a noxious weed in Ohio. It is primarily a problem in crop fields where management techniques reduce competition from other plants. New colonies of Johnson Grass usually occur along the road from seed dropped by vehicles, especially farm equipment, contaminated by seed picked up at another location. Established prairies can often hold their own against Johnson Grass, but it’s best not to let a potential problem get started.

These open panicles are easy to spot atop the tall Johnson Grass plant. Many people think of my prairies as giant weed patches, so I aggressively try to eliminate plants like this that many people can positively identify as a weed. Normally I spray these plants early in the season before they can produce a flower head, but the threat of rain seemed to appear every time I could schedule time for this task.

Once these plants are tall enough to flower, spraying becomes an unsatisfactory method of control. Trying to spray such a tall plant results in a large kill radius and the loss of too many desirable plants in the surrounding area. My fall back strategy is to pull the plants. Pulling is not as effective as spraying because of the plant’s habit of spreading by way of rhizomes. Rhizomes left in the soil after the plant is pulled will survive and produce new plants. Fortunately I have been dealing with these plants for many years and am not working with established colonies. The young plants that I am pulling have not had a chance to produce many rhizomes and older plants are severely stressed when pulled.

These plants have been pulled before seed could begin to develop. Pulling plants that have already produced their crop of seeds results in those seeds being scattered even more than would have occurred if they had been left alone.

Not taking any chances that either early developing seed or hearty rhizomes are left in the field, I’ve carried the pulled plants and piled them in my garden. The organic material will help the soil and no seeds or plants will have a chance of surviving here. New Johnson Grass infestations will continue to occur along the road, so my involvement with this plant will never end.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Ant Swarm

Here’s a lovely swarm of ants coming out of crack beside the barn door. The winged ants are the reproductive individuals and will fly off to mate. The female then lives on to create a new colony. When I was a kid living in urban areas, people used to band together to destroy swarming ants, mistaking them for termites. I have a vivid image of a circle of adults in the middle of a lawn, beating at swarming ants with brooms and shovels, splashing out gasoline like they were having a champagne party, and finally throwing in cigarettes until the gas ignited. They’re behavior made sense to me as an eight year old, because I knew that’s the way the villagers in the movies always acted when they cornered the monster in the castle. Now I wonder how they managed to act that way without someone being hurt or killed. Despite these early lessons, I still love ants, swarming or otherwise.

This is a species of Crematogaster ant. That heart shaped rear end, called a gaster, is often raised above the body when the ant is agitated. At the tip of the gaster is a functional sting that dispenses a drop of caustic liquid used for defense. This ant often carries larvae and pupae to an elevated location for final transformation to adult form. This is the ant most commonly found in Bluebird boxes, usually accompanied by a pile of white pupae.

The workers are quite adamant that the winged individuals fly off and take care of business. Winged males and females will be bitten and prodded until they take off. This is a mixed bunch, the winged males being smaller than the females and the workers being without wings.

This is a female, or queen, resting on top of my filing cabinet. She carries an overly large gaster intended to lay eggs for the next few years. She’ll fly first and the males will follow.

The workers aggressively defend the area around the swarm. Crematogaster is showing this Allegheny Mound Ant who’s boss.

Friday, August 28, 2009

A Walk on the Trail - Part 5 Finale

We’ve made it out of the trees and into the field. Looks like we’ll be home for the weekend. This is a point of mixed emotions for many people. We’ve just come up a pretty big hill and they’re thinking it’ll be easy going once we hit the field, but what they find is more hill. I usually go this way and enjoy the panoramic view from the top.

Since I showed you the view from the hill a while back, I’ll choose an alternate route. We’ll take the route along the lower side of the field. Some gentle rises and falls in this direction that shouldn’t be a challenge at all. Remember as we travel along that prior to 1986, this field had a long history of continuous row crops. Everything you see is natural regeneration helped along by a persistent manager.

Many people adjust their vision to long distance view when moving from a crowded woods to an open field. They can be half way down this stretch before awareness of their immediate surroundings returns. That’s unfortunate, because little things can easily be missed.

There are several species of orchids that grow in the prairie fields. Many are tiny and easily missed. This is Slender Ladies’ Tresses, Spiranthes lacera, a spiked orchid that rarely reaches over a foot in height.

You’ll need to get down on knees and elbows in order to photograph this little blossom. You can tell this species by the green throat in the flower.

A nice little clump of Wild Senna, Senna marilandica. I’ve been encouraging this plant because it is the host plant to the Cloudless Sulphur butterfly. The Cloudless Sulphur is one of those southern species that migrates northward as the summer progresses. I’ve been seeing these butterflies at Blue Jay Barrens regularly for the last few years and am hoping to find their larvae on the senna.

Even though it’s been a dismal year for Swallowtail Butterflies, I’ve been seeing an abundance of the Giant Swallowtails.

The trees to the left are what remains of an old fence row. For some reason, these trees are the best warbler magnet on the property. I positioned the trail at the ideal distance to allow perfect surveillance of the trees through binoculars. The trees are on the east side of the field and the setting sun behind you makes the warblers light up.

This side of the field contains shale based soils. This prompts a different mix of vegetation and a different pattern of regeneration than what you find in the limestone areas. The taller trees in the field are Dogwoods and are allowed to stay. Most of the Dogwoods in the woods have been lost to disease. Those in the open seem immune from disease.

A ripe Puffball just off the trail. The cloud at the bottom of the photo is composed of spores released when I whacked the fungi with a stick.

This field abounds with the Cut-leaved Grape Fern. This is a low growing fern that I’ve found in the thickest patches of tall grass. Shape of the leaflets is quite variable in this species and it's not uncommon to find many different variations all growing in the same small area.

There is quite a diverse collection of plant species in this field. Keep in mind that it is not possible for an open field to sustain itself without some type of intervention. If this field had been left untouched for the last 23 years, we would be standing in a young woodland instead of an open field.

Butterfly Weed has had a tremendous year. I’m still seeing new flower buds forming on plants. Monarchs also seem to be having a productive year.

Monarda flowers are fading away, but there’s still enough nectar for this male Southern Golden Skipper. That may have been his wife we saw at the other end of the trail.

We’re nearing the end. The house if just beyond those White Pines. When building trails, remember to avoid long straight lines. Gentle directional changes in the trail add interest to your walk and increase the chances of coming around a curve and catching some animal sitting out in the open.

Here’s the end of the trail. Just beyond those trees is the backyard we started from. Half a mile in five days is a pretty slow march.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Walk on the Trail - Part 4

If there’s going to be moisture in the soil, it’ll be found here in the floodplain of the creek. More moisture doesn’t necessarily equate to optimum growing conditions. Once or twice each year, the creek floods and covers this area with water. This flooding is not the quiet, backwater flooding of the lower streams. When this area floods, the water movement is fast and violent. Leaf litter that should decompose and enrich the soil, is often carried away downstream.

This bridge is set just above the high water mark. Flood water will through the low area to the left before it moves the bridge.

I left gaps between the bridge deck boards that are large enough to peer through. As a kid, I loved crouching down to spy on little animals seeking protection in the shaded water below the bridge.

For the safety of those who like to hang over the side, I put the bridge supports near the end of the deck boards. This makes it nearly impossible for the bridge to tip.

There are some large Eastern Red Cedars growing in the floodplain. These big cedars routinely shed long strips of this bark. This bark is a favorite nest material for squirrels and many types of birds.

The older cedar wood is fairly rot resistant and dead branches stay on the tree practically forever. Some of these dead branches change shape as the cycle of drying and wetting causes the wood to warp. If you’re clearing these branches back from a trail, don’t be surprised when you bump your head on a branch that used to be quite out of the way.

The excess rain is causing some surprises. In 20 years of walking this trail, I’ve never seen this. Looks like Chanterelle, but I’ve mentioned my lack of fungi knowledge before.

Despite the lack of a definitive ID, it stands up well for a photograph.

Across the creek, the ground slopes quickly upward. The soil transition from moist to extra dry is nicely reflected by the change in ground cover.

Another tree down. An obstruction like this changes the creek hydrology and will change the types of organisms living in this section of the creek. These types of changes are a typical occurrence in naturally flowing streams.

There will also be changes on the hillside where additional sunlight is now reaching the ground. This is a typical woodland occurrence and results in a more diverse habitat.

The resting bench. I don’t spend much time sitting here. I can’t seem to sit for more than a few seconds before I see something I have to go investigate. Sometimes I use the bench as a worktable to hold my identification guides while I puzzle out some strange organism.

A moth just shot passed and zipped to the ground in the middle of the trail. A lovely pattern and some really bushy antennae, but I don’t know what species this is.

The trail goes through a thick stand of Lyre-leaved Sage, Salvia lyrata . The only part of the Sage that gets cut by the mower is the flower stalk. The plant does well here with the lack of competition by other plants.

It’s best to watch ahead of you and not yawn as you walk down the trail. These orb weaving spiders seem to always build their webs and hang about face level. It’s bad enough finding yourself with web and spider covering your face, but you definitely don’t want this fellow wandering around your tonsils.

The last bridge before we begin to head up the hill. The twist is not intentional. This bridge got slammed two years ago by logs riding the flood water from an upstream property. One of the supports was cracked and I haven’t completed the repairs.

The deer love to walk the trails, but they won’t cross bridges. Here’s where the deer have created their own trail bypassing the bridge. This could create a bank erosion problem.

We’re heading up the hill toward the open fields. I can’t remember a trip around the trail ever taking this long.