Monday, February 29, 2016

The 31st Year

It was in 1985 that my wife and I purchased the property that was to become known as Blue Jay Barrens, making this our 31st year of living here. I feel that now is an appropriate time to look back at my management efforts over the past 30 years and see how the property has developed over that time.

I spent the first five years getting to know the property. Effective land management requires that you have both an intimate knowledge of a property attributes and a well-defined vision of what you desire the property to become. At the end of five years I had a basic understanding of the geology and soil, land use history, and flora and fauna composition. I realized that this property had something special in the way of rare flora and fauna associations. The enhancement of these uncommon natural history components became a priority with me, so in 1990 I developed a five-year plan of action that identified goals and activities that would direct the natural ecological changes towards the development of healthy, native systems.

I am now in year one of my sixth five-year plan. I have accumulated a large bulk of lists, notes, sketches and related documents pertaining to my discoveries at Blue Jay Barrens. To be of future practical value, the information contained in this material must be synthesized into a more compact and easy to understand form. Accomplishing that feat is a high priority item in my current plan.

Identification of plant species growing at blue Jay Barrens has always been a priority. Goals were set identifying numbers of new species that I thought I should be able to add to the list each year. I created forms that made it easy for me to record information on new plant discoveries. A simple line drawing of the property and an accompanying table allowed me to quickly capture name, location and a few brief notes about each discovery. I could return later to record more detailed observations. A second priority in the current management plan is to revisit each of the 540+ plant species on the Blue Jay Barrens flora list to confirm its identity and record information on its current status.

For the more uncommon species, general distribution maps have been maintained. These maps will be updated as needed as the flora list updates are completed. When I began my management activities, many of the common information recording devices, such as GPS receivers and digital cameras, were not readily available, so records were kept in the more traditional manner of pen or pencil scrawls and sheets of paper.

Much of the work in the earlier plans revolved around clearing woody growth in the overgrown fields, to allow sunlight to reach uncommon species that were in danger of being eliminated as their habitat became more shaded. Eastern Red Cedars were the primary shade producing species in the open fields. Records were kept identifying the boundaries of the each work area along with the date the work was done and the total hours spent performing the task. For each work area, I would compute the time required to complete a specific unit. In this particular area it was taking a proximately three hours to clear 1/10 of an acre of land. It makes me tired just thinking about how much effort it took to hand cut all of those Cedars and physically drag them over to be stacked on a brush pile.

The evidence of all of that early clearing work has almost entirely disappeared. Huge brush piles have rotted down into small mounds, medium and small cedar stumps have decomposed and disappeared, and vegetation has filled in the bare areas left by the shadows. The work done back then has had a tremendous impact on the condition of the fields now. Even though knowing what was doesn’t change what is, that knowledge can have a profound effect on our efforts to guide the property towards what it could become.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Salamander Breeding - Phase Two

Salamander breeding season at Blue Jay Barrens is proceeding in what has become a normal pattern.  Activity begins with the arrival of Jefferson Salamanders in late December or early January and progresses in waves before ending with the arrival of Spotted Salamanders in March or April.  In advance of a forecast rainstorm, I examined the salamander eggs that had been deposited in the pond during a late December breeding event.

Jefferson Salamander eggs from that event had been attached to submerged plant stalks.  After roughly a month in the water, they were showing a characteristic opaque appearance with a greenish cast from algae growing on the outside of the masses.

Submerged clay tile and boards, intended to receive eggs from the Streamside Salamander, remained unused.  Streamside Salamanders typically enter the pond several weeks after the first of the Jeffersons.

Rain began during late evening of February 2 and continued until early the next morning.  The combination of rainy weather and warm temperatures created ideal conditions for more salamanders to move into the pond.  Unfortunately, the almost two inches of rain, most of which fell in a short period during the middle of the night, caused a lot of dirty water to runoff of the township road.  I couldn’t see into the water well enough to detect any signs of new salamander activity.

Four days later, the near shore water was practically clear and new salamander egg clusters were clearly visible. 

This most recent batch of eggs is a month behind those shown earlier.  These larvae will hatch later and be smaller than their predecessors, making it highly likely that many will end up as food items for their larger relatives.

A snow storm, leading another round of subfreezing temperatures, moved in before the water cleared enough for me to see into the deeper water where the Streamside Salamander breeding structures are located. 

The pond is now iced over and snow covered.  I’ll have to wait a bit before again assessing the salamander breeding progress.  Weather forecast for the week calls for snow followed by rain and then temperatures climbing to near 60°F by Friday, so I shouldn’t have to wait long.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Finishing Up the Mowing

Last night, I heard the first calls of courting Woodcocks from the prairies of Blue Jay Barrens.  This was a reminder to me that I had to complete my winter mowing before the female Woodcock began selecting nesting sites.  I only planned on mowing about two acres this winter and should have completed that back in November.  However, frequent rains and warm temperatures kept some of the areas too wet and soft to mow without making a mess.  I found myself with about an acre left to mow as we entered February.  This is one of the larger areas, the valley though which one of the main trails begins.

At one time, this valley was choked with Smooth Sumac and a hefty dose of Multiflora Rose.  Removal of the shrubs allowed prairie vegetation to move into the area.

The deep soil of the valley supports a healthy population of Monarda.  The flowers attract a wide range of butterfly and moth species during the summer.  Soil depth decreases rapidly as you leave the valley.  The slope in the background has less than a foot of soil over the bedrock.

Indian Grass crowds this section of trail.  As it grows, it leans into the open area.  The leaning grass was trimmed back several times during the late summer to keep the trail open.  Heavy snow sometimes bends the grass towards the trail, but our precipitation this year has been primarily rain, so the Indian Grass has remained upright.

The contours of the valley are easy to see following a mowing.  The steep hillsides terminate suddenly into the flat valley floor.  Underlying limestone bedrock follows the grade of the hillsides and continues that same angle to a point beneath the valley center.  Soil eroded from the hillsides has been trapped in the valley, gradually changing the shape from a sharp V to a gentle bowl.

A strange feature of this valley is the fact that a large portion of the storm runoff water travels through channels below the ground.  Under certain conditions you can hear the water rushing beneath your feet.  The water all emerges at the head of a stream farther down the valley.  Seasonal springs also discharge through this same system, but at a much lower volume.  The springs normally flow from January to July.

The sumacs cleared from this valley produced several large brush piles.  The remains of one can still be seen just right of center in the photo.  This pile remains because it contained several rot resistant Eastern Red Cedars along with the sumac.  Piles of all sumac, one of which was in the center of the photo behind the crooked Ash and another just downhill from the cedar on the left, decomposed quickly and disappeared back into the soil.

I don’t mow the fields every year, but I always take at least one pass along the trail edges.  This keeps the dead grass stalks, which will eventually fall, from dropping out into the trail.  A couple of years ago, I began blowing the cut grass onto the trail in an attempt to increase organic matter and nutrient cycling.  After 25 years of maintaining this trail with a lawn mower, I had unintentionally subjected it to a type of management known as soil impoverishment.  This is where you continue to remove vegetation and the nutrients it contains, without replacing the loss with soil additives.  Over time, this activity diminishes the supply of essential elements required for plant growth and plants grow poorly.  Each time I mowed, the cut grass was blown into the edge of the field.  Eventually, the grass on the trail began to thin out and the grass at the field edge prospered.  Trail grass seems to be responding well to my new strategy.

With the mowing comes the flags marking woody invaders that need to be removed in order to protect the desired mix of plant species.  Control of woody vegetation is the reason these areas get mowed.  Red flags mark small trees that need to be killed.  Most of these flags are marking Black Walnut seedlings that grew from nuts produced by those Black Walnut trees showing in the foreground.

Only one patch of nasty invasives in this mowing.  A clump of young Multiflora Rose.  I suspect the seeds came from a bird that rested in this tree.  My encounters with non-native invasives become more rare each year.  It’s a nice thing to see happening.  I should finish my mowing tomorrow and hope to see just as few non-native invasives then.