Tom's Blog

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Great spring flowers

Once our south slope starts blooming we know that spring is really here. We have been blessed with great early spring blooms ever since we removed all the invasive brush from the slope, and the good spring burn we had in March helped things along this year. The above photo by Kathie is of violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea), which is now at its peak. This interesting plant blooms very early and then essentially disappears until next year, except for an occasional single flower here and there in late fall.

Another nice early bloomer is birds foot violet (Viola pedata; Kathie photo at left), which forms a large colorful display in the prairie remnants. We also see quite a bit of prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), although it tends to be more scattered. Telling these two violets apart in the field is a challenge, because they are so similar.

Also very colorful at this time of year is marsh marigold (Calthus palustris) in our wetland. This is most common around the edges of the many spring-fed seeps that well up in our sedge meadow. (Kathie photo below)

In contrast to the prairie hillside and wetland, the flowers in the oak savannas are not very conspicuous. The nicest one this early in the season is wood anemone (Anemone quinquefolia), which often forms largish patches. However, if the day isn't sunny (like yesterday, when I took this photo), the flowers don't open. Even when the flowers are open, the display is fairly subtle.

Other flowers we are seeing now are pussy toes (Antennaria sp.), early buttercup, dooryard violet (Viola soraria), and of course dandelion. In a week or so there will be lots more, since right now in bud we have golden Alexanders, wood betony, shooting star, and jacob's ladder.

This is a great time of year!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Installing a wood duck house

We were given a nice wood duck house by Madison Audubon (via Mark Martin) and installed it yesterday. As the photo shows, it is sitting at the edge of our wetland. Actually, the water is not usually as high as the photo shows, but the night before we had a 3 inch rainfall. Normally, there is a small, clear-flowing, creek here, part of our spring-fed wetland.

Wood ducks like some open water but nest in cavities of trees, or artificial cavities such as our wood duck house. The house follows the design approved by the Wood Duck Society. Although a wood duck house can be placed on a tree, the best place is on a pole near water. Thus, our duck house has an ideal location. It's on a 10 foot pole with about 4 feet in the ground. We used a step ladder to get high enough to use the post-hole digger properly. The plastic sleeve at the bottom of the pole is an animal guard, since critters such as raccoons love to rob the nests. Clean wood shavings were put inside the box.

Wood ducks have been identified in our breeding bird surveys, although nests have not been found. Hopefully, we aren't too late to attract a nesting pair.

Marci and Jim Hess helped us install the pole and box.

This box is easy to see from Pleasant Valley Road. If you are driving east, you can pull over on the side of the road and scan the box for activity. We'd appreciate learning of any sitings (use the Contact form to the left).

Friday, April 24, 2009

Two interesting burns

During burn season, we never know what the weather will bring. We had a brief window yesterday (April 23, 2009) and managed to get in our final burns of the season. We burned two unusual prairie remnants that we have not been able to burn on a regular basis.

One remnant is an old abandoned quarry from which we had removed brush five or six years ago. This is a very dry site with only a thin soil layer, but little blue stem and a few other prairie plants had started to move in. (Fringed puccoon was in full flower a couple of years ago.)

At 6 AM the weather was not promising (red in the morning, sailors take warning), and we had a substantial shower around 9 AM. Obviously, we wouldn't be burning, so we went off and did other things. About 11 AM the weather made a major shift, the sky cleared, the humidity dropped to about 35%, and a brisk wind started to dry things off. We enjoyed a pleasant sunny lunch and decided to burn. With one-hour fuels, we felt a burn was worth a try. There were four of us, just enough to handle the burn.

The photo above shows the early stage of the quarry burn. Because we had no road access, control made use of two water backcans and a flapper. Everything burned well, and we had this burn done by 2 PM.

Our second burn was one we had never done before but were anxious to try. Our 3/4 mile of roadside along County Highway F is essentially a long narrow prairie/savanna remnant. This roadside had been periodically mowed by highway crews, but infrequent enough so that a lot of prairie species had remained. When we first started restoration, this roadside was our source for seeds of quite a few species, including arrow-leafed aster, golden Alexanders, great St. John's wort, stiff gentian, fringed loosestrife, Culver's root, elm-leafed goldenrod, yellow pimpernel, New Jersey tea, etc. etc. To encourage these species, we have been controlling brush (with the highway department's cooperation) for about 10 years. But we had never burned this roadside.

We thought a burn might be possible this year because we had a very success burn last fall in the oak woods just above the roadcut, so that we would not have to worry about fire from the roadside escaping up into the woods. But in order to be sure the woods were safe, and to protect the row of birch trees that thrive along the top of the road bank, we wetlined the top of the slope using the pumper unit on our truck.

I drove the truck and Kathie sat on the back and operated the hose. Heisley ran the drip torch and Marci used the pumper unit in our Kawasaki Mule for mop-up. The photo below shows the burn in progress.

In order to speed up the burn, Heisley lighted in strips at right angles to the road (essentially chevrons).

The roadside burned reasonably well, but we did have some "escapes" up into the woods. A lot of new leaves had come down during the winter, so there was substantial fuel in some areas. The fire moved from the roadside up into these woods and then started to spread as either a mild head or flank fire.

There was really no safety problem, but we spent about an hour putting these fires out. The pumper unit on the truck has 300 feet of hose, so we were able to reach any area that was burning. It took four of us on this work: Heisley operated the nozzle, Kathie was up in the woods guiding the hose, I fed the hose off the reel, and Marci operated the crank on the reel (the hardest job) to bring the hose back out of the woods. This was one of those jobs that really justifies a heavy-duty pumper unit.

We were able to put out all the smokers fairly quickly, also being helped by the increase in humidity that occurred late in the afternoon. The whole burn was finished by 5 PM.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Final burn of the year?

Despite our successful burns, we still had two more areas to burn. Unfortunately, burn conditions this past week were "too" good, with very low humidities, and all burns were canceled by DNR. Finally, on Saturday morning the humidity was a bit up and predictions were for afternoon rain, so we received permission to go ahead. Unfortunately, everyone else in southern Wisconsin was also burning, so there were only four of us to do the burn. But the burn went very well.

The area we wanted to burn, Units 20 and 21, are an interesting combination of open prairie, savanna, and closed oak woodland. They had been restored about 5 years ago with the removal of lots of black walnuts as well as elm and cherry. Former walnut zones are hard to restore because the trees produce juglone, a chemical toxin that inhibits lots of native species. However, brambles are not inhibited, so both areas had become heavily infested with black raspberries. The best method of eradicating brambles is to run a hot fire through to top kill the plants and then spray all the resprouts with triclopyr (Garlon). So we really needed to get this burn done.

The photo at top shows the Unit 20 burn in its later stages. The unburned area in the foreground is the Pocket Prairie, which we had burned late last fall. As can be seen, the burn coverage was very good. This is in contrast to last year's burn of this area, when the burn conditions were not so good and the coverage was much poorer. I attribute the better burn this year to the fact that the week of unusually low humidities had dried all the fuel out.

The fuel for a burn like this is primarily oak leaves, but there is usually lots of dead wood on the ground which also burns, as can be seen in the photo at left. If burning wood like this is well inside the burn unit, we do not put it out, but leave it to burn up. Depending on the conditions in the woods, this may take a few hours or overnight. Rarely is the wood completely consumed, but the remaining wood makes good habitat for critters.

We try to protect all standing dead trees from fire by clearing around them, removing all vegetation with a brush cutter followed by a powerful leaf blower. However, we are not always successful here, and an occasional standing dead tree catches fire. The one in the photo below was heavily rotten and the fire was enough to weaken it completely. Fortunately, no one was using the service road when this tree came down!

This was a very successful burn, and we are looking forward to attacking the bramble resprouts as soon as they are large enough.

Thanks so much to Jim and Marci for spending part of their Saturday helping us on this burn. We could not have done it without them!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

First flowers of the year

It's always nice to see the first flowers of the year. This gives one faith that spring will really come!

Early buttercup is almost always the first plant we see in flower. This tiny buttercup never grows more than a few inches high, but it often blooms prolifically. Where we usually see it first is on our woods road. The reason it shows first here is that we mow this road, thus keeping the vegetation low, so the buttercup isn't shaded out. Since it has a very short flower stalk, and leaves appressed to the ground, mowing doesn't hurt it.

The other early flowering plants are the spring ephemerals, of which bloodroot is one of the first. This appeared in one of our shady savannas that we had burned last fall. The ephemerals in the savannas we burned only 6 days ago are still black and barren. It will take at least another week before we will start to see any flowers there.

Other species that I have seen already are only in the vegetative state. They include shooting star, pale Indian plantain, compass plant, columbine, and early meadow rue. More will be along shortly.

Unfortunately, garlic mustard is also showing itself now. We don't have a lot of this awful invasive, but we are determined to eradicate what we do have, so today we sprayed those plants visible. The spray we used was a combination of 2% Roundup and 1% 2,4-D. The latter is a good thing to add, because garlic mustard is very sensitive to it and starts to curl up in about 3 days. Roundup also works but takes a lot longer to show its effect. By adding 2,4-D, we get quick evidence that we did't miss any plants.

Those who control garlic mustard are probably aware that a single spraying is not enough, as plants continue to flush for weeks during the spring. We usually return to any known patches three times, or at least twice, and then return in early June to hand pull any plants missed by the spraying.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Big savanna burn

"The secret to all prescribed burning is to let the weather work for you. When all environmental factors are right the job is easy." (Wright and Bailey, Fire Ecology.)

This statement was really true yesterday (April 8, 2009) when we did a large savanna burn at Pleasant Valley Conservancy. We did the largest savanna burn we have ever done, and the most successful. The burn was 30 acres (per ArcGIS) and included almost all of our white oak and bur oak savannas.

We had a great crew of 12 people, all of whom were experienced and worked hard. The photo below shows the test fire at the start of the burn.

The weather was on the cool side (45-50 F) but the humidity was low (35-45%) and the wind was out of the northwest, a bit gusty but generally less that 8 mph. We had had a wet snow 5 days before, but the cold front that followed brought lots of sun and strong dry winds which really cured the fuel. Most of the fuel was oak leaves except for about 8 more open acres that were tallgrass savanna.

As the photo below shows, the fire carried well.

And the photo below shows that the coverage was essentially 100%.

After we finished the big savanna burn, we burned a 3 acre oak woods that had not been burned for 4 years. It also burned well, although there was a fair amount of downed wood and dead snags that despite our fire-proofing gave us problems on mop-up. (Kathie stayed until 11 PM dousing glowing logs and snags.)

We finished the day by burning a small planted prairie (the Barn Prairie).

With the three major burns we have done this spring, we are reaching the end of our planned burns, although we still have one small planted prairie and two wooded areas yet to burn.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

April 3, 2009: Another good burn day

We have been held back from our prescribed burning by the unseasonably cool weather this spring. We had one great burn in the middle of March, and then the weather crashed. April 3, 2009 turned out to be a great burn day.

A cold front had come through and conditions were clear, although windy. Predictions were for sunny weather, maximum temperature 50 F, and RH around 35-40%. Even though there had been 0.5 inches of rain recently, the good wind dried out the fuel.

Today we wanted to burn the planted prairies below (south of) Pleasant Valley Road. These are the Valley, Cabin, Barn, and Crane Prairie. Crew: Susan, Marci, Jim, Craig, David, and Kathie. I mainly watched. Equipment: Mule with its pumper unit. We also had the truck and its pumper but did not need them. We also used 4 backpack water tanks, three drip torches, and four radios.

The Valley and Crane Prairies are separated from our wetland (mainly sedge meadow and cattails) by mowed fire breaks. We did not want to burn the wetland, so we used the pumper unit in the Mule to wetline the fire breaks. One drip torch moved along after the wetliner, and the other drip torch did interior lighting to speed up the burn. It took us about 30 minutes to complete the Valley Prairie burn (around 5 acres). The photo at the top shows how the Valley Prairie looked after the burn was over. Very good! (The hill behind is the south-facing slope that we had burn in mid-March.)

The Crane Prairie was burned the same way. The photo below shows the burn in action. Although the wind was supposed to be out of the north, our steep hill deflects it so that it ends up almost from the west, creating a flank fire. The vegetation just past the fire break is cattails. In addition to the pumper, two people with water backcans served as spotters. It took us about 30 minutes to complete this burn (3 acres).

Then we turned to the Cabin Prairie, which constitutes three separate plantings around our buildings. This is a rather fussy burn since we have electrical boxes, trees, and buildings to keep from burning. Lots of wetting down, which Kathie and David did (see photo below, which gives a good view of the Mule in action and also shows Marci acting as backup).

We had planned to do the Barn Prairie next, but since everything was burning so well, and we had a good crew, I decided to burn Unit 19 savanna instead. This is a long narrow unit at the very top of our ridge which we need to have black before we do our main savanna burn. It is separated from the main savanna by a gravel road, which serves as a fire break. We also have a fire break on the north side of Unit 19, separating it from the oak woods on the north-facing slope.

The wind was out of the north. We had one drip torch doing a back burn along the edge of the gravel, and the other torch lighting a head fire at the edge of the north fire break. This torch kept well behind the first one, and the two communicated by radio. The photo below shows the gravel road down through the middle. The burn unit is to the right. The big savanna unit on the left will be burned as soon as we get another good day.

There were two substantial brush piles that had been made 2 years ago. We let them burn. There were also some dead logs on the ground which we also let burn.

We finished the burns at 4:15 PM. Kathie and I then spent an hour getting all the equipment cold-proofed, since freezes were predicted. We drained the water from the hose and pumper unit in the Mule and added antifreeze. We then went out to eat and returned just before dark to check on the brush piles and burning logs. No real problems so we went home about 8 PM.

In all, a great burn!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Planting recently burned oak savanna

Yesterday we planted a mix of savanna species on the bur oak savannas on the upper part of our south-facing slope. We had a great burn here two weeks ago and finally found the time to get the seed mixes ready. The photo above shows a view of this area.

What we call an open savanna seed mix has over 100 species, and in addition to forbs includes prairie grasses such as Indian grass and side oats. The idea is that depending on which side of a bur oak a seed falls, it will be more or less sunny. On the sunny side, prairie grasses may brow, whereas on the shadier side will be savanna forbs.

I'd be happy to send anyone interested an Excel spreadsheet of our 2008 seed list.

Susan and Marci did the planting, and the wind was great so that the seeds got well spread.

After they finished, Kathie planted some of the same areas with savanna (cool-season) grasses. These are not planted as a mix, but each species is planted separately, in swaths. The idea here is to have a patch here and there of a single species. This not only looks nice, but is actually the way these species are found in nature.

We have planted this area several times before, but experience has shown that not every species gets started every year it is planted. Repeated planting is a good idea. And we always plant just after a burn, when the ground is bare.

The south-facing slope at Pleasant Valley Conservancy is actually a composite of two separate vegetation types, a short-grass prairie on the lower slopes, and a bur-oak savanna on the upper. I think the reason for this division is because of the topography of the site. The lower slope is very steep and gets the full brunt of the sun, especially in the spring and fall when the sun is still at a fairly steep angle. (I have calculated that at this time of year a 45 degree slope gets about 60% more sunlight per unit area than a horizontal surface.) The upper slope, as the photo here shows, is not so steep, and is leveling off. This is where the bur oaks are.

If you want to see this bur oak savanna well, take a walk along the south fire break, which you can reach from our service road. The management map on our web site shows where this is. It's a great walk and takes you through the heart of this bur oak savanna. This walk can be done any time of year, because the great oaks are always nice to see.