Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Wolf Cedar

The term wolf, when used to describe a tree, refers to expansive horizontal top growth that spreads in all directions to gobble up as much living space as possible.  A single Wolf tree can occupy enough space to accommodate a dozen or more typical vertical growing individuals.  Eastern Red Cedar genetics usually doesn’t allow the development of Wolf trees, so I was surprised to find this specimen.

The Wolf Cedar has developed horizontal branches that extend far to all sides.  A more typical growth pattern is demonstrated by the tree on the right.  Their trunks are almost identically sized, so they are probably both about the same age.

Branches near ground level would have begun their horizontal journey when the tree was quite small.  They should have slowed their growth rate long ago and by now should be dead.

There are plenty of side branches that behaved normally.  They are short, dead branches with a slightly upward curve. 

The unusually long side branches of the Wolf Cedar are still growing.  This branch leaves the tree only a couple of feet off the ground, makes its way far from the trunk and then curves upward to be topped by normal cedar growth.

The odd pattern of growth continues on up the tree.  Deciduous trees exhibit this wolfing behavior when they are grown in the open without competing neighbors.  They are able to adjust their growth habits to fit the existing conditions.  Shape of Eastern Red Cedars is dependent on the genetic makeup of the individual tree.  The two basic shapes are column or cone and genetics dictates which form the tree will take.  The growth pattern is not affected by the amount of neighboring competition.  Compared to its relatives at Blue Jay Barrens, this is one odd tree.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Wrangling Roses

I decided to drag the material from my invasive cutting over to this brush pile.  When first constructed, the pile of cedars would have reached nearly to the top of the picture frame.  That was seven years ago.  Those cedars have since decomposed and the mass of the pile has diminished considerably.  It receives a few branches each year, but not enough to make up for the rate of decomposition.

Some Multiflora Rose bushes growing near the pile were cut earlier in the year.  Since I was going to be working in the area, I thought I might as well gather up the cut roses and add them to the pile.

I’ve got some thick leather gloves that I wear when working with roses.  It’s sometimes possible to move the entire bush by gathering the thorny canes by the base and dragging the mess to its new location.

This specimen proved to be one of the more difficult to move.  As sometimes happens with fence row roses, this bush had canes in excess of 25 feet long that had gotten tangled up in the tree.  I managed to get some of the bush on the brush pile, but the canes still trailed back to a mass left hanging from the tree.

I was fortunate to shed only a little blood while wrestling the bush down out of the tree.  Multiflora Rose canes tend to grow in a curve.  A long cane will be stretched straight out while it’s being pulled, but once free from the tree, the inherent curve causes it to whip around and encircle the person doing the pulling.  It’s no fun to be suddenly hugged by a thorny rose cane.

I finally got the bush sort of rounded up and on top of the brush pile.  Tips of canes are still waving around, so it remains a challenge to keep from being scratched.  The next task is to consolidate the coils of canes into a controlled collection.

I used the cut brush to collect the canes and force them in and down on top of the pile.  Each branch contained a few more canes until the rose bush was confined to the boundaries of the pile.

The final step was to add heavier material on top to further compress the rose.  Rose canes decompose quickly, so they’ll disappear by next fall.  I would normally climb on top of the pile at this point and push everything down further.  I skipped that step because most of the brush on top was Autumn Olive and crabapple, both of which were covered with short spear-like branches.  I had no desire to end my day with puncture wounds in my ankles and legs.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Taking Out Some Invasives

While mowing this area earlier in the year, I found a few woody invasives that were too large for the mower, so I left them to be cut later.  I finally got back there with the saw to remove those size XL invasive plants. 

Tuliptrees are quick to grow in the more moisture rich soils in this part of the field.  It doesn’t take long for them to develop into a fair sized tree.

I’m still finding Autumn Olives.  Usually it’s just one plant and I find it before it begins to produce fruit.  There are several massive Autumn Olive shrubs on properties close to Blue Jay Barrens, so I expect the influx of seed to continue.  I’m just glad to have reached the point where the seed is no longer produced here.

The seed for this American Crabapple, Pyrus coronaria, probably came from trees growing near the house that were planted many years ago as part of an Ohio Division of Wildlife habitat improvement program.  Over the years, I haven’t found more than a dozen of these volunteers growing in the fields and fence rows.  That’s rather surprising considering the thousands of little apples the parent trees have produced.

Care must be taken when working around this crabapple.  The short branches form a sharp spine at the tip that is capable of penetrating most material used for jackets, pants or boot soles.  This tree had three trunks, but the branches were so entangled that the tree sections had to be cut apart.

With the invasives removed, the field is looking exceptionally nice.  The mild weather and abundant fruit crop have allowed the birds to lead a relatively stress free life this winter.  The clusters of sumac fruits, a last resort food of most birds, remain untouched.

The Flowering Dogwoods are loaded with flower buds.  They should make a beautiful display in the spring.  I’m really anxious to see how this field develops during the next growing season.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Fallen Tree Brush Piles

Not all of the brush piles I construct are the result of cedar clearing.  Occasionally a tree will fall or lose a large load of branches and I will gather them up into a small pile on the site where they fell.  I usually do this when the branches have fallen into an area that I am managing as an open field.

The result is a small pile that has a rather short life span.  While it exists, the combination of large loosely arranged branches attracts a variety of wildlife species.

Many bird species hang around the piles and leave behind the seeds contained within fruits upon which they’ve been feeding.  An eater of Multiflora Rose fruits obviously spent time here.  A shallow pile of brush provides an ideal environment for the germination of seeds and the growth of young plants.  Some very healthy rose bushes sprout from these piles.

I keep finding more roses with fresh growth.  I hope this out-of-season growth is putting some stress on the rose plant.

The roses have been removed and their remains added to the top of the pile.

Many other woody plants have taken advantage of the exceptional growing conditions within the boundaries of the brush pile.  Winged Sumac, Fragrant Sumac, Sassafras and Wild Black Cherry are sharing this pile.  These are all species that are readily spread by birds.

The Fragrant Sumac is heavily loaded with flower buds, so it should be a prime source of early spring nectar.  This will be a good place to search for some of the rarer early season butterflies.

The pile was built from the branches of this dead tree.  Woodpeckers and other cavity nesting birds made good use of the tree before it fell.  Unless there’s a safety issue involved, I’ll leave dead trees to fall naturally.  I also like to leave the trees to decompose where they fall.  While it grew, the tree took its needs from the soil on that site and I think it’s proper for the soil to receive back what it earlier gave up.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Cedar Clearing

With a nice corridor linking the brush pile to the cedar clearing area, I’m ready to begin cutting cedars. 

At this point in the process, I like to go around and cut everything that can be handled by Big Loppers.  This gets a lot of the eye blocking greenery out of the way and gives you room to work with the saw around the larger cedars.

To help carry the smaller cedars, I use a willowy seven foot cedar as a bundling strap.  I put the strap on the ground and lay a bunch of cut cedars across it.  I then grab the strap on each side of the pile and lift the whole collection up to move to the brush pile.

When I pile the material, the top of the cedar strap is caught between the brush pile and the material being carried.  By taking the butt of the cedar and forcing it in and down through the pile, you can bind the material and affix it snuggly to the side of the pile.  Additional bundles can be stacked up to a height of about four feet.  Trying to go any higher is usually unsuccessful because of the difficulty of holding the bundle together as you lift it for placement.  I like to call this the Jelly Roll method of stacking cedars.  It really works best with cedars in the five foot range.  The cedars shown here are about twice that size.

After I’ve finished with Big Loppers, I use Little Bow to take out the larger trees.  I just start at the corridor and keep working outward until I reach the edge of the work area.

Stumps give a good picture of the density of the cedar stand.  Little Bow does a good job of cutting things close to the ground, so there are no tall stumps left.  It’s really a nuisance to trip over cedar stumps when you walk through the prairie.  I would also like to avoid the pain involved with kneeling down to look at a plant and getting jabbed in the shin by a cedar stump.  By next winter the stumps will have turned gray and will be hardly noticeable.  It may take 15 or 20 years before they decompose and disappear.

I managed to add some bulk to the brush pile before being halted by thawing ground.  The brush pile base is as large as it will get.  A few more hours of clearing will take the height up to its maximum limit.  Weather forecasts are predicting a slightly warmer trend with more rain, so I don’t know when I’ll be seeing frozen ground again.

Dragging cedars across frozen ground gives the vegetation a raked appearance, but there’s no soil compaction and the plants suffer very little damage.  If my activities were continued into the warm afternoon, I would create a muddy, trampled path in the thawed earth.  By the middle of next summer, there won’t be any evidence left of my dragging activities.

Even if I don’t get back to this project this year, I’ve made a clearing large enough to bring in a lot of sunlight.  The prairie vegetation should respond favorably to the new situation. 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Cedar Clearing Preparation

Weather conditions continue to be unsuited to doing clearing work in the prairies.  Frequent rains have left the soil saturated with water,  making it highly susceptible to damage from the trampling it would receive while I cleared cedars.  I’ve taken advantage of the occasional few hours of frozen ground in the early mornings to do some clearing at the site next to the old log landing.  As the day warms, the ground quickly thaws and becomes muddy, so I have to be quick to get anything accomplished.  I stop work as soon as the ground begins to feel soft.

The first task when beginning work on a new clearing site is choosing the location of the brush pile.  I try to pile the brush as high as possible while minimizing the basal area of the pile.  In order to accomplish this, I use large cedars as a support for one side of the pile.  The cedar on the right side of the photo and the double cedar a little farther back will act as the supports for this pile.  When I made my first pile in this fashion, I was concerned that there might be negative effects to the growing cedars, but this appears not to be the case.  Cedars that received piles over 20 years ago are still healthy and continue growing while the brush rots down around them.

I monitored the brush pile site through the last growing season to make sure there were no important plant species that would be covered.  Mosses and Golden Ragwort were the dominant species and these are common to many areas of Blue Jay Barrens.  Choosing a suitable brush pile site takes more time and planning than any other aspect of cedar clearing.

Big Loppers and Little Bow are my tools of choice for clearing cedars.  Big Loppers will cut anything up to two inches in diameter.  Little Bow, a standard 21 inch bow saw, will handle the rest of what I typically clear, which is usually less than six inches in diameter.  I prefer to use hand tools for my management work because they are quiet and allow me to enjoy the sounds of birds and other nature as I’m working.  In addition, they are easy to carry from the barn to the job site, they never fail to start when I’m ready to begin work and they don’t produce any unpleasant odors when in operation.

Clearing starts with a path that begins at the brush pile and runs up through the center of the clearing area.  The path needs to be wide enough for a person to easily travel while hauling a mass of cedars.  Dragging brush is much easier if you don’t have the surrounding growth snagging on you or the brush as you proceed to the pile.
This size corridor is ideal.  I can move some large loads of brush through here without difficulty.  I also personally benefit by being better able to view the clearing job ahead.  As I walk the corridor, I’m able to look to each side and see the numbers of different sized cedars to be cut and decide in what order I should proceed with the clearing. 

I begin the brush pile by building a vertical wall against the support trees.  This barrier helps to contain the material I will push in from the front side.  The initial cedars in the pile must be longer than the distance between the support trees, so they will be properly anchored at each end.  I build up to a height of about five feet before starting to add width to the pile.

This is what I accomplished before the ground began to get soft.  From here I’ll begin general clearing and increase the width of the brush pile.  I just need another frozen morning.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Ant Mound Predation

Ant mounds, built by the Allegheny Mound Ant, Formica exsectoides, suffer a bit each year from foraging animals seeking potential food items buried in the mound.  Usually it’s just some shallow digging that does little damage to the integrity of the mound.

The animal that did this must have been more ambitious than most.  There was quite a pile of dirt brought up from this hole.

The opposite side of the mound showed an even more aggressive excavation.  I don’t know what the animal was after.  There was no evidence of anything edible in the spoil or left inside the excavation.

Crumbs from the digging are still perched atop the nearby Indian Grass stalks.  That means it was probably done last night.  Heavy rain the night before would have quickly washed this evidence away.

This explains all of the dirt piled outside the holes.  The excavation goes completely through the mound.  There was still no evidence of what motivated the animal to do this much work. 

These galleries would have been filled with ants during the summer.  In January, the ants are normally not active outside the mound, but depending on temperatures and sunlight, are often present within the mound.  I’ve read that winged queens sometimes overwinter in the colony and winged queens seem to be a treat for any animal.  Foraging animals don’t just dig for the fun of it, so I’m sure there was something worthwhile to be found here.  I just couldn’t find a clue to what it was.