Thursday, September 27, 2012

Creek Obstruction Removal

A tangle of debris was left in this section of the creek channel following a flood in early 2011.  More material has collected since that time and the resulting dam has almost completely blocked the channel.

If left in place, this blockage will result in a major rerouting of the stream channel.  That option didn’t seem right for this particular area, so I decided to remove the debris and reopen the old channel.

Cutting a couple of key logs freed everything else, so it was just a matter of pulling pieces free and moving them out of the channel.  Most were just set out on the bank.  I’ll move everything to one of the brush piles later in the fall. 

Leaves and other organic material trapped by the obstruction were mostly well composted.  That compost will make its way downstream during the next big rain event.  Decomposing leaves are a primary source of nutrients for headwater stream systems.  Ideally, small pockets of leaves are left along the entire stream length instead of all piling up in one location.

The flood water will now make its way around to the left instead of jumping out of bank and running overland to the right.  The floodplain affected by out of bank flood water contains an assortment of wildflowers.  Loss of topsoil during flood times and direct damage to plants by the flood water threatened to destroy most of those plants.  High water may still makes its way across the flood plain, but that will happen much less frequently now that the blockage has been removed.

Creek blockages are natural occurrences that shape the development of a stream.  I normally leave these obstructions to run their natural course.  In this case, I considered the blockage to be somewhat unnatural because of the source of most of the original material.  The biggest part of the trees and branches creating the original tangle were from logging debris thrown into the channel somewhere upstream of Blue Jay Barrens.  A flash flood event dislodged the mess from its upstream resting place and relocated it here.  Without the addition of this artificially created debris, the obstruction would probably never have formed.  I accept changes created by natural events, but I do my best to correct man-made disasters.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Steep Hill Clearing Site

I’m still evaluating the old clearing sites to see which ones need some additional work.  I need to get an estimate of how many days it will take to complete the work and how much brush can be added to the existing piles.  Steep topography sometimes adds an extra challenge to cedar clearing.  Measured on the down hill side, this brush pile originally reached a height of 12 feet.  That’s mainly because the ground dropped three feet from the front to the back of the pile, so by the time I had the top of the pile level with the ground in front, the back of the pile had already received three feet of brush. 

This is the area directly uphill from the brush pile.  The slope certainly made it easy to drag the cedars.  The only problem I had was weather related.  The ground was frozen and we kept getting dustings of snow at night.  Temperatures warmed enough during the day to turn the snow to slush and coming down the hill was like trying to walk down a water slide.  Some of the larger cedars were just thrown down the hill and they managed to slide all the way to the bottom.

I quit working if it got warm enough to thaw the soil surface.  I didn’t want to create ruts that could start an erosion problem.  It’s definitely easier to drag brush down hill, but a slope can be a problem under certain conditions.

It took several years before the vegetation finally covered the cleared area.  Now that this area has developed so nicely, it’s time to open up the neighboring section.

The stand of cedars is not very thick, but it’s enough to inhibit plant growth.  This is what the other section looked like before being cleared.  In the background is that previously cleared area.  Completion of this next section will about double the size of the opening. I’ll keep clearing until the brush pile is back up to its record height.  I’m hoping to accomplish the task without ice this time.

There is a good diversity of plant species beneath the cedars, but lack of sunlight inhibits their growth.  One of the fun things about clearing is watching these small plants respond to the increased light and grow to their full potential.

Even with plenty of sunlight, growing conditions are not good on this hillside.  Rock is here in all sizes from gravel to bedrock slabs.  Rain water runs off quickly and that sunlight so desperately needed by the plants, bakes the ground hard each summer.  Like the first section, the plants will be slow to rebound, but I’m confident that I’ll see improvement every year.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

End of Summer

When a Flowering Dogwood that has presented a healthy green color for several months suddenly turns bright red, it means that summer has come to an end.  This is one of the signals that tells me to finish up my summer tasks and prepare for the more labor intensive winter management season.  If the weather continues dry, I’ll probably begin cedar clearing activities around October 14.  Weather wet enough to delay clearing will mean that we’re getting sufficient rain to raise the well level.  Either option will make me happy.

Autumn skies seem ideally suited to contrails.  I know that aircraft leave contrails at other times of the year, but it’s now that the deep blue of the sky is most often left uncluttered by clouds.  I know that this phenomenon produces no odor detectable by me, but a person burning trash somewhere upwind of me made it seem that I smelled jet exhaust.  I was reminded that no matter how much I wished it to be true, Blue Jay Barrens does not exist independently of the surrounding community.  I’m constantly assaulted by uncontrollable forces that influence the activities on this property.  The best I can do is hope that positive results stem from any outside interaction.

Two frosts have made the prairie grasses begin their transition to reddish gold.  This may be the most attractive period in a tall grass prairie’s life.

The deciduous trees have begun their journey to a final blaze of color before leaf fall.  It’s still too early to tell how the drought will affect color or the speed at which the leaves will drop.  Drought years are notorious for having dull colors and rapid loss of leaves.  It’s not unusual for a string of cloudy days to arrive just before peak leaf color and put a dull finish on everything.  Combine that with a drizzly rain and strong winds and the leaf show can flash past without notice.  Since I really need that rain, I’m betting it will stay dry.

Fog rising out of the Ohio Brush Creek valley is also an annual Autumn event.  Cold air settling over the warm creek water produces some extremely thick fog.  This is the only time of year that you get such an extreme temperature difference between water and air.  This reminds me of my days as a youngster watching insecticide clouds rise above the housetops as the mosquito control truck cruised neighboring roads.  Swirling clouds of water vapor are much more calming than a release of toxic gas, but they are still filling me with an urgent need to complete my summer projects so I can move into a new season.

Monday, September 24, 2012

First Frost

We just barely made it into Autumn before the first frost arrived.  Forecast temperatures for Sunday morning were 40 degrees, but in rural areas it’s easy to be another 10 degrees cooler.  I found heavy frost covering everything when I came out at daybreak.  Gray-headed Coneflower is normally an early summer bloomer, but a few bloomed especially late this year.   A cap of ice is not a normal addition to these flowers.

This frost wasn’t just a light covering across the top of the vegetation.  The cold air filtered down to the base of the plants and put a layer of frost on even the more protected lower leaves.

Many plants will take a frost or two with little suffering, but this is generally a sign that the growing season is coming to a close.

The Gray Goldenrod will be a little bit duller after the frost melts away.  The yellow will still be bright, but somewhat subdued from its prefrost glow.  The temperatures will warm over the next few days, but the change in the goldenrod flowers will still make me feel cold.

Instead of forming intricate crystals, some of the frost began as dew and then froze into balls or lumps. 

With leaves fringed in ice, the Agrimony leaves make a nice display.  I think frost on plants is just one of those things that people like to photograph.  I don’t know how many hundreds of frost pictures I have cluttering up my photo archive.

Frost is a signal for these Blackberry leaves to hurry up and drop.  It would be nice if the thorns were also shed each fall.  These plants gave me some great scratches last winter and will probably do the same this year.  The worst part is that they never produced any berries this summer.

New England Aster has just begun to bloom and will not be slowed by a bit of frost.  As the goldenrods dim, the aster will become more noticeable.

The frost was quick to disappear as the sun moved above the tree line.  It was a short window in which to get some photos, but I think I got all I needed.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Improving the Pond for Amphibian Breeding

A collection of Red-osier Dogwood, Black Willow and Green Ash grows on the bank and in the shallow water of the pond.  The water disappeared a few months ago, so it’s difficult to realize that the mowed grass in the foreground covers the pond bottom.  By early winter, the water will be restored and the pond will be ready for another year of amphibian breeding.

The low growing branches falling out towards the center of the pond have caused a problem for several years.  Frogs and salamanders breeding immediately following a heavy rain lay their eggs on branches that are only temporarily inundated.  When the water falls back to its typical level, the eggs are left hanging in the air.

Fallen dogwood branches that touch the pond bottom develop roots and sprout more branches.  As a result, the dogwoods have extended their reach far out into the pond.  I used to snip off branches carrying egg clusters to keep the eggs from drying in the air.  The dogwoods are so thick that it is now difficult to see the egg clusters and even more difficult to reach them with pruners.

I decided that it was time to trim back the growth, so the egg laying amphibians would be denied a choice of unsuitable egg laying sites.  Finding a good place to begin cutting was a bit of a challenge.  Finally, I just took the big pruners and cut my way into the center of the stand.  From there things got much easier.

Besides trimming the dogwoods, I took out all of the Green Ash.  The Rural Electric lines run right across the center of the pond and ash trees would soon pose a threat to those lines.

That clump on the end is the last bit needing cut.  Its reach into the pond is typical of what the entire strip was like before I began cutting.

When the trimming was completed, I took JR around to cut off any sprouts I might have missed.  This should make it much easier to monitor egg laying activities.

Here’s the cut material all separated into piles and ready to be drug to the brush pile.  I made 12 trips to the brush pile at approximately 340 feet per trip.  That’s like dragging one pile of brush for three-fourths of a mile.  That’s just one of those things I think about as I work.

Now it’s ready for salamander breeding season.  I hope this results in fewer eggs being lost to fluctuating water levels.  Now all we need is the water.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Turkey Vultures

I was walking through the Indian Grass when a passing shadow indicated that I was being overflown by a Turkey Vulture.  An upward glance revealed two of the birds doing broad circles as they drifted across the field.  At certain times, laziness is an appropriate response to a fortuitous situation.  I stretched out in the grass to watch the birds.  This is something I’m not able to do when near the road or in the yard, because people tend to assume I’ve dropped dead and they stop to investigate.

The Turkey Vulture is probably the largest bird that people around here can regularly observe.  Even though I see them almost daily, I always take a moment to watch as they fly over.

It’s interesting how their look changes with the angle of the light.  When viewed in the air, the vulture of most often backlit making the pattern beneath the wing difficult to see.  While turning, the pale patch beneath the wing can catch the sunlight and give an unexpectedly bright flash.

Once in the air, Turkey Vultures seemingly glide forever.  There was a pretty strong wind blowing when I took these pictures, but you couldn’t tell by watching the birds.  They maintained the same speed whether going upwind, downwind or crosswind.

This one checked its forward speed and paused briefly to move its head back and forth.  It was probably trying to pick up the scent of its next meal.  There must not have been anything appetizing, because the birds drifted on out of the field and over the ridge.  That called an end to my lazy spell and I got up and continued on my way.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Indian Grass 2012

This is the time of year to enjoy the tall grass prairie.  The Indian Grass at Blue Jay Barrens has reached its peak for the year and will get no taller.  It’s a joy to go out and get lost among the towering grass stalks.

The grass is looking particularly healthy this year.  Winds associated with passing weather fronts move the grass in waves across the field.

Despite its apparent vigor, the grass has behaved oddly this year.  Stalks from last year’s stand are still present.  Early summer rains normally cause the base of the dead stalks to decompose.  The stalks then topple.  By summer’s end, the stalks are hidden from sight.  The intense early summer drought kept things so dry that the old stalks never fell.  In the shot above, the area in the foreground was mowed during the winter, so all of the stalks were cut and laid down.  The area behind was left untouched and the light brown of old stalks is clear to see.

The second thing of note this year is the height of the grass.  Bluebird nest boxes should now be hidden by the grass.  The top of the nest box is right at five feet above the ground.  Most of the grass falls well short of that height.  The tall grass experience is just not the same when the grass just barely makes it up to your shoulder.  Not much chance of getting lost in grass like that.

A rain storm during grass bloom provided conditions that were just perfect for pollination and seed set.  Despite its short height, the grass produced normal sized heads.  I’d say that the grass had a successful season.

Unlike last year’s staggered ripening schedule, the Indian Grass this year is all developing at the same rate.  Everywhere I checked I found developing seed at the milk stage, meaning that the center of the seed contains a white liquid.  It won’t be long before the seeds harden and begin to turn brown.  It appears that sparrows spending the winter in the fields will have plenty of grass seed on which to feed.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Protecting the Harvest

This has been a year of many plant species deviating from their normal development cycle.  Some species flowered late, some early, some have stayed around for the whole summer and others were totally absent.  Most have had individual plants that flowered out of sync with the rest of their group.  This Prairie Dock is an example of that condition.

I’m enjoying the extended flowering period, but the rest of the Prairie Dock plants are well past this stage.

This is the time of year for seeds to be ripening.  The tall flower stalks have lost their color and the plants are busy pumping energy into the achenes that will soon dry and scatter on the wind as a promise of new plants in the future.  I plan to intervene in this natural process and gather the seeds for distribution in areas of my own choosing.

The achenes containing the seeds can be seen surrounding the central disk.  Each flower head produces about a dozen achenes and each achene contains a single seed.  I’ve read that seeds will germinate if planted while the achenes are still green, but I’ve never had any success with that method.  I won’t harvest until the entire seed head is dry.

I opened a couple of the seed heads to check on seed development.  Every achene I checked was swollen with a developing seed.  I should be able to collect plenty of seeds.  At least I will if I can keep the birds from eating them before they dry.  The almost sunflower like seeds are eagerly sought by many bird species.  Goldfinches in particular can clean out an entire stand in just a few days and they don’t wait for the seed head to dry.

In order to save some seeds, I must make them inaccessible to the birds.  I usually don’t take any action until I see some sign that the birds have begun their harvest.  The most noticeable sign, aside from the birds themselves, is bird droppings on the leaves below the flower stalks.

I place a net barrier around the portion of the seed crop that I would like to claim as my own.  The open mesh of the net allows adequate air flow for the seeds to dry.  When the bulk of the seed crop is ready to harvest, I’ll remove the net and pluck the seed heads.  When I first began doing this, I tried to cinch the net around every possible opening, but a bird would always end up inside the net.  Letting the bird out was a nuisance, so I’ve changed my methods slightly.  Now the bottom and top of the net are left open.  If a bird really wants to, it can get inside the net and later it can easily get out.  Those few birds that do go in eat so few seeds that it doesn’t make a difference to my harvest.  I also leave plenty of stalks outside the net for use by the birds.  In this way I think we all get what we want.