Sunday, February 28, 2010


Lichens are everywhere at Blue Jay Barrens. They can be found growing on wood, rocks, soil and anything else that provides a long term foundation. There’s a wide range of forms, colors and textures that I take as an indicator of an abundance of lichen species.

My problem is that I don’t have much experience in lichen identification or classification, so I don’t know whether I’m looking at dozens of different species or dozens of variations of one species. I do have the Brodo text which, if based on weight, must be the best available. I know it’ll cut off circulation to the legs if you try hold it on your lap while reading. I also have some less detailed references, but I haven’t had the time to do any serious lichen studies.

I do know that lichens are a special type of organism formed through the symbiotic relationship of an algae and a fungus. The association produces an organism that is different from either one of the symbionts. It’s interesting enough to think of one type of algae and one fungus having this type of relationship, but to have thousands of different species combining to produce all of these myriad forms is amazing.

Lichens are very sensitive to environmental changes, both local and global. This should be reason enough to learn the lichens, so we are able understand what they can tell us. The abundance of lichens at Blue Jay Barrens should be an indicator that things in general are well, but how am I to know that crinkled edges and rust spots are not the signs of a lichen in the throes of death.

I’ll learn more eventually. For now, I try to be aware of the lichens and maintain a diversity of substrates upon which they can grow. One day I may be able to look at a patch of lichen such as this and tell you about air and rain quality and all the other factors that affect this patch of earth. For now, all I can see in the lichen pattern are such things as a deer’s face, a laughing man, a knight’s helmet and an angel.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Winter Annuals

Some of the barrens lost their cover of snow yesterday, although they’re probably covered again by now. I took advantage of the opportunity to check on the progress of some of the winter annuals. This mix of Leavenworthia and Draba looks in pretty good shape despite being partially covered by cedar needles deposited by the melt water.

This is a pretty tough place to survive. Rain, snow and rocky ground make it difficult for small plants to survive, but those aren’t all of the challenges.

A deer could mash dozens of these little plants with one step. Fortunately deer don’t have any reason to congregate on the rocky barrens, so the only damage they cause is when they stroll through.

Something made a chipmunk sized hole and scattered dirt in a broad circle. Once covered, the winter annuals will not survive. Disturbed soil on these sites can result in the death of plants, but it is also a way that dormant seeds find their way to the surface to germinate.

The excessive moisture has caused the Nostoc population to explode. It is unlikely that small plants trapped beneath the Nostoc will survive.

Despite the hardships, the plants are looking pretty good so far. There will be more losses before growing conditions stabilize, but there should be plenty of plants left to produce seeds for the next generation.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Around the Yard

There was a brief period when the snow melted from the pond and I could see that the salamander eggs were doing well beneath the ice. The ice wasn’t thick enough to support my weight, so I had to lean out from the bank to get this shot. It looks as though there are still plenty of viable eggs and they appear to have developed some since they were last seen.

The birds like to hang out in the shrubs around the pond. They’ve done a good job of tracking up the snow. The snow around some of the tracks thawed in the sun and refroze to form durable casts. These are now left elevated above the diminishing snow base.

The brief spell of warmer weather has allowed the ice free zone to expand. Recent rain and snow melt have increased the flow of the spring entering here and the increase of warm water entering the pond will make it unlikely to freeze over again this year. The opposite bank faces south and has already lost all of its snow cover.

The bushes near the open water are always full of birds. Having this reliable water source is one of the reasons I have so many birds visiting the feeders.

The prairie garden catches a lot of the snow blowing across the front yard. I either mow or burn this garden every spring. This is primarily to make it easier to see the developing plants. Normally this work would have already been done by now.

The water garden is still under ice and snow and seems to be getting a fresh half inch every morning. The site gets a lot of morning and evening shade, so it takes quite a while for things to melt. It’s interesting that, even though the water garden is frozen solid, the rabbits insist on crossing the foot bridge.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Winter Beech

In some protected areas, trees are still holding on to their dead leaves. I’m used to seeing the patches of brown leaves and occasionally, I’ll notice one that is different enough to warrant investigation. These leaves were a slightly different shade of brown and turned out to be those of the Beech, Fagus grandiflora.

The leaf is shaped like a spear point and has neatly scalloped edges with sharp points. When fresh, the leaf has the crisp, clean cut appearance of something made with expert precision. The old leaves tend to curl and wear, but still present a striking image.

The bud is long and pointed like a pike (the jabbing weapon, not the fish). It’s hard to mistake this bud for something else.

The combination of leaf and bud makes it possible to identify this species from quite a distance.

The bark of the Beech is exceptionally smooth. This species has always been considered the official carving tree. As in carving dates, hearts and initials into the bark.

There are only a few small and no large Beech trees at Blue Jay Barrens. I was really happy to see this previously undiscovered specimen. There’s not much of an opening in the canopy here. I hope this guy is able to find a way up into the sunlight.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

What Are These Deer Doing?

While following tracks through the snow, I found areas that looked as though the deer had run into an obstacle that caused them to shuffle in place before finding a way around. I could see that the downed trees were obstructions, but it didn’t make sense that the deer wouldn’t just go around.

This tree top wasn’t in the way. Why would this cause such a disruption of the traffic pattern? It appeared as though the deer were actually tripping over this branch.

I noticed another of the concentrated hoof print areas that was without any type of blockade. A few Japanese Honeysuckle leaves in the snow made it clear what was happening here.

Just above the hoof marks, were these honeysuckle vines. Deer are fond of honeysuckle and will readily browse the vines. It would be nice if the deer browsed it enough to slow its spread across the landscape.

Most of the vines within reach showed signs of being browsed by deer. Deer lack upper incisors, so the bite consists of pinching the plant between the lower incisors and a hard upper plate. Woody material browsed by deer usually displays a ragged cut.

Only one of the concentration zones had any honeysuckle, but in the other areas, I began to notice fresh cedar cuttings on the snow. I rarely see signs of deer browsing on Eastern Red Cedars, but it appeared that they were feeding on the green growth of newly fallen trees.

All of the fallen cedars showed browse signs. The odd thing is that I didn’t find any signs of deer browsing on upright cedars. Even young, short cedars with what looked like perfectly succulent shoots weren’t touched. I wonder what differences there would be in fallen cedars that would make them so much more attractive to hungry deer.
Note: I stepped out the door this morning into a fresh layer of snow and the sound of the first Woodcock of the year.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Cottontail Activity

The clearing I do results in a lot of brush piles that are used as cover by various types of wildlife. Snowy conditions are perfect for assessing the popularity if the various piles. This particular pile is being used by Eastern Cottontail rabbits.

The area around the brush pile is covered with rabbit sign. Tracks, scat and cuttings are everywhere around the pile. It makes me wonder how many rabbits might be using this one brush pile.

The rabbits have been feeding on Fragrant Sumac that has formed a thick stand on one side of the brush pile. Fragrant Sumac is known for the strong aroma it imparts when the stems are damaged. It certainly doesn’t smell like something that should be eaten.

This stem is showing drops of sap around the typical angled cut made by the rabbit. A little pruning doesn’t hurt these shrubs at all. Cutting seems to make them regrow with even more vigor.

The brush pile was also surrounded by the tracks of a dog or coyote. I haven’t heard the coyotes for over a month, so these may be dog tracks.

After the canine circled the pile, checking access routes used by the rabbits, it climbed up on top to see if it could access rabbits from there. This brush pile had a few large cedar trunks used in its base and the rest of the material was small and packed as tight as I could get it. There’s no way anything could ever dig through that mass of branches.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Fallen Cedars

The heavy snows damaged several of the large cedars at Blue Jay Barrens. Branches were broken from the bigger trees and many small cedars will have a permanent bend to their trunk. The added combination of a shallow root system and unfrozen ground beneath the snow caused many cedars to fall.

It’s hard to avoid the domino effect when large trees fall in the woods. The tree that is now flat out on the ground caught and scraped down the side of the tree leaning to the left. As it fell, the fallen tree scraped all the dead branches from a ten foot section of the leaning tree’s trunk.

As the leaning tree fell, it caught a third tree and caused it to fall. They are now both leaning against another tree that has to bear their weight along with its own. If left in this position, the next tree will soon develop a lean that will allow the sequence of falling trees to continue.

Now I have to deal with the opportunities resulting from this event. Those trees are large and the trunks will make good replacement supports for some of my older foot bridges. This site isn’t far from one of my established brush piles, so I won’t have to establish a new pile or drag the tops and branches a long distance for disposal.

The exciting part will be watching what plants develop in the sunlight entering through this new hole in the cedar canopy. It’ll also be interesting to see how the rest of the cedars respond to this sudden openness.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Snow Covered Barren Slopes

It appears that the snow will soon be gone, so we need to take time to enjoy the last of the snow scenes. Snow on the steep barrens reminds me of being in the mountains. I can almost imagine Bighorn Sheep walking across the slope.

The gentle curves of the snow blanket effectively conceal all of the sharp angles and bare soil normally associated with this barren. Hopefully the little winter annuals are getting enough sunlight to survive until the snow departs.

The snow makes the gullies look like gentle swales, easily crossable by the casual hiker. Trying to walk in that direction, with the hidden drop-offs and icy slopes, could be a real leg breaker.

The snow is about eight inches deep in most places. A few spots have managed to lose the snow and are rapidly developing areas of bare ground.

A cross slope shot gives a better idea of the steepness of this area. It seems hardly possible that four months ago this slope was covered with blooming orchids.

Here is the dry barren with a glut of unusable water. If I told someone that I saw this hillside barren covered in eight inches of water, they would say I was lying. I don’t lie, but those who know me will tell you that I have a way of manipulating the truth to my best advantage.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Yard Deer

As the snow depth increases, the number of deer visits to the yard increases. Within a couple of days, the deer have the snow completely churned up around the bird feeding area.

I sometimes suspect that visiting my yard is the deer’s equivalent to our visiting the mall. There seems to be a lot of aimless walking about, checking of the sights, getting a bite to eat and heading away. The deer spend a lot of time hanging out in the pine trees. Those must be like our clusters of resting benches.

These tracks are the result of forty-eight hours of deer activity. Wednesday evening, everything was drifted over and the snow was completely smooth. This view is what things looked like Friday afternoon.

There are several popular travel lanes amidst the random wanderings. They really did a thorough job of tracking over the entire yard.

I don’t know what the deer found so interesting about this spot, but they pawed around on it until they exposed the grass.

Once leaving the yard, they followed this trail across the field before fanning out in different directions. Even though the entire field has been mowed, they stuck to the trail that I keep mowed through the summer.