Tom's Blog

Friday, April 30, 2010

Results of large wetland burn

The day after the large Fish & Wildlife Service burn at Pleasant Valley Conservancy, I spent a couple of hours touring the burn site with our Kawasaki Mule and marking areas that had not burned. The map here shows the results. (A higher resolution PDF version can be downloaded via the Pleasant Valley Conservancy web site.)

The sedge meadows, cattail patches, and grassy areas burned extremely well. Vegetation in areas of standing water, as well as marsh marigold areas (which are also in standing water) did not burn.

Although I have not had the time yet to determine the exact area burned, I would estimate from the above map that between 60 and 70% of the wetland burned. This is considerably better than the previous burn, done in 2005. See this link for details of the 2005 burn.

We are anticipating dramatic vegetation responses for this burn, as happened after the 2005.burn.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Big wetland burn at Pleasant Valley

Today the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Private Lands Office, burned the large wetland that includes Pleasant Valley Conservancy. This 150 acre wetland (large for the driftless area) has five separate owners, all of whom agreed to permit this burn. Pleasant Valley Conservancy owns about 35 acres of this wetland.

This was a major, very complex burn, and required a really skilled fire crew. Mike Engle wrote the burn plan, and Terry Severson was the burn boss.

I'll give the results of the burn in my next post, after I have mapped the burned area. This post just provides some photos showing the burn in action.

The photo below shows the burn crew at the initial orientation session. The burn boss is discussing the purpose of the burn, the conditions needed for a successful burn, any contingencies, etc.

The photo below shows the middle of the wetland when the burn was well underway.
The photo below shows the burn results in a cattail/sedge meadow area near the Valley Prairie. The Conservancy barn is in the distance.
The photo below shows some nice flame heights in a shrub-carr area.

This was a very successful burn. I'll have a map and some details in my next post.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Herbicide bucket for the field

What does the well-equipped restoration ecologist carry in the field? A bucket of herbicides! I never go anywhere without mine.

Pleasant Valley Conservancy is a fairly large area, and I get around it with our Kawasaki Mule utility vehicle or our pick-up truck. Sometimes I even use the Kubota tractor, which has a custom-made box on the back to carry supplies.

But wherever I go, I carry my bucket of herbicides, which contains three things: a two-gallon hand sprayer containing 2-3% Roundup (generic equivalent); a 32 ounce spray bottle containing 20% Garlon 4 in Bark Oil LT; and a 32 ounce bottle containing 50% Roundup. The two-gallon hand-held sprayer is used to treat general herbaceous weeds, such as garlic mustard, hedge parsley, motherwort, thistle, etc. etc. The Garlon 4 is used to basal bark woody plants such as sumac, blackberry, honeysuckle, buckthorn, etc. And the 50% Roundup is used to treat reed canary grass or cut stems of various woody plants, such as willow, box elder, etc. (The Garlon 4 can also be used for cut stems also.)

I can save a lot of time by having this bucket of herbicide with me.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Controlling red raspberries

Among the various bramble species we have to deal with, red raspberry (Rubus idaeus) is by far the worst. It forms large, very dense clones, with stems close together. It can spread rapidly by rhizomes. Its seeds can remain alive for decades in forest soils, then starting to grow when sunlight becomes available. Oak savanna restoration, which involves opening up the forest and letting the sunlight in, is almost guaranteed to foster red raspberry growth.

The photo above shows a typical red raspberry patch about a month after a burn. The stem density is evident. All the stems were top-killed by the burn. I pulled one of these up by the roots to see what it looked like. As the graphic below shows, the plant had several dormant buds, two of which have resprouted.

After almost ten years working on bramble control, we have found that the best way to deal with red raspberry is to spray (with 3.5% Garlon 3A) all the resprouts that arise after burns. Fortunately, these patches burn very well, and all of the living stems are top-killed.

Yesterday I spent most of the day spraying the large patch shown in the top photo. I have been monitoring burned areas for the past week, to see when the resprouts are big enough to spray. The idea is to spray them when they fairly small, to avoid damaging adjacent "good" plants, but with enough leaf area to take in the herbicide. With an appropriate nozzle on the backpack sprayer, and a lot of caution, it is possible to spray the resprouts selectively. We add a blue dye to the spray mix to permit control, and to make sure we don't miss any resprouts.

Unfortunately, not all the resprouts come up at the same time. There will be a new "crop" ready to spray in about two weeks. Since eradication is the goal, one must return and spray these new plants. In fact, three separate "passes" through a clone during the month of May is best.

Although this approach is time-consuming, it is the best way to get rid of red raspberries in oak savanna areas. (Prairies are easier to deal with.) Fortunately, once they are eradicated it is fairly easy to keep new infestations from getting started.

Of course, this approach requires that the area can be burned. You need good fuel to carry a fire. Fortunately, brambles are quite sensitive to fire, and if the fire carries through them, they are usually killed. In fact, the dried raspberry leaves themselves help carry the fire.

Bramble control is one of the reasons why we insist on burning our oak savannas "every" year!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A good plant out of place?

The term "plant out of place" is often use to refer to weeds or other invasives. How about a plant you know is "good" but seems out of place?

Sweet Indian plantain (Hasteola suaveolens), sometimes listed as a Special Concern plant, is supposed to be in sedge meadows or prairies (per Curtis and the UW Arboretum). In fact, we have quite a bit of this species growing with its "feet" near water in our wetlands.

Imagine our surprise today, when checking some of last year's transplants of other species, to find quite a lot of Hasteola growing in rather dry conditions in our Unit 10 savanna! Not just a single plant, but 8 separate patches, scattered over an area of about 10 foot square.

I doubt whether we planted them, not up here at the top of the hill. Yet they seemed to be healthy and vigorous.

I have seen this species forming a small patch in another of our savannas (Unit 11B), but figured it was a mistake. But now that I have found a second patch, I begin to wonder if this plant isn't more versatile than had been suspected.

It seems unlikely that there is a hidden "seep" nearby, since the site in question is exactly at the top of the hill, and there is no possibility of a water source nearby.

It will be interesting to see if these plants thrive, flower, and set seed.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Juneberry in flower

Juneberry (Amelanchier arborea), also called serviceberry, is in flower now. This is one of the handsome early-flowering shrubs (small trees) of our area.

We used to have a few of these shrubs growing in savanna areas, but unfortunately, they disappeared during our restoration work. I'm not sure why they did not survive. According to the U.S. Forest Service database on fire effects, juneberry is a fire survivor and although top-killed by fire, is able to resprout from the root crown. The photo above shows one of the last survivors, in Unit 12A (the White Oak Savanna). This area had been burned several times without effect on the shrub, but it later died out. Possibly some other factor was at work. We were sorry to see it go, but considered the sacrifice worth it because of the desire to burn the savanna. (Burning the savannas every year is one of the best ways of knocking back invasive shrubs as part of a long-term control process.)

Since this is a nice shrub to have around, we decided to plant a couple near our newly constructed privy. It has taken a few years to get them started, but the photo shows what one of them looks like this year. Eventually, it should be big enough so that it will provide some screening for the privy.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Burning at night

I don't like night burns but sometimes they are necessary. Last night Kathie and I participated in a night burn at Madison Audubon's Goose Pond Sanctuary.

Yesterday had been so windy (gusts up to 25 mph) that a daytime burn authorization was not possible. 6 PM is a magic hour for Wisconsin Forestry, and "after 6" permits are generally possible even if daytime conditions are forbidding. The wind dies off and the humidity rises, making the burn inherently safer. Of course, you end up walking around in the dark, which provides its own challenge.

The area we burned was Ankenbrandt Prairie, a large planted prairie that borders US Highway 51. (Kathie and I had helped plant this prairie about ten years ago.) Because of smoke concerns across the highway, a north or northwest wind was necessary, so that the smoke would blow away from the road.

A large crew was involved in this burn, with a number of drip torches, two pumper units, and lots of water.

I drove a truck that had a large pumper unit, with a 100 gallon tank and a 150 foot hose. The pumper unit was used for "wetlining", which involves laying down a good line of water right next to the burn line. Although these planted prairies usually have wide mowed fire control lines, these lines are hardly what one would call "breaks", since they are quite grassy. The fire can easily creep across them if not prevented. Wetlining is the preferred way of keeping this from happening.

We filled the tank of the pumper unit completely to the top. In addition we brought along about 25 2 1/2 gallon water bottles. Some folks thought that we would never need this much water, but my experience is that you never know how much water you are going to need on a burn. These big pumper units use lots of water! As it turned out, we completely emptied the 100 gallon tank and ended up using almost all of the 2 1/2 gallon jugs as well.

The sun was still up when we started lighting, but by the time the prairie was well lighted it was pitch dark. Following standard practice, the periphery of the whole burn unit was completely blackened before the interior was lighted, since the best fire break is a wide blackened area (black line). Once this was done, interior lighting began, and to speed up the burn, long strips were lighted at right angles to the wind direction.

It was 7 PM before we were able to start lighting, and the whole burn was completed about 9 PM.

The view was spectacular, and we had lots of cars stopping on the highway to watch the fire spread.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Last burn of the season

We have been waiting two weeks for the right conditions to finish our planned burns for the spring season, and finally today we found them! These were all oak woodland burns, not particularly large, but fairly complicated. Fortunately, everything went fine.

The weather had been sunny and clear for the past several days but this morning it was cloudy, and rain was forecast for later in the day. However, the R.H. remained low (30-35%) and the temperature was moderate (60-65 F), with a wind of 5-10 mph out of the east. Importantly, the fuel (primarily oak leaves) remained dry.

We first burned a fairly large wooded area near the corner of Pleasant Valley Road and County Hwy F. This was a former honeysuckle area that had substantial numbers of resprouts from the seed bank. In early March we had treated all of these small plants with Garlon 4 (basal bark). Getting the area burned was important to top kill any plants we had missed.

Another area was a fine white oak woodland at the east end of the Conservancy that had a substantial buckthorn infestation. Again, Garlon 4 basal bark had been used, and was followed today by a good burn. (See photo)

We also burned several other small areas that had been missed in our earlier burns.

We started lighting about 10:15 A.M. and finished about 2:30 PM. Shortly after we finished, it started to rain. Good timing!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Response of buckthorn to basal bark herbicide treatment

If you have been following this blog, you know that I am a big fan of herbicide treatment of woody plants by the basal bark method with Garlon 4. This has the advantage that one confines the herbicide to just the target species. Carried out properly, there is no need to slop herbicide all over the ground.

Last fall we used basal bark treatment on lots of small buckthorn plants. We are now seeing the results of our work.

The photo shows a buckthorn plant whose leaves are just coming out. You might at first think that the herbicide was not working, but if you look carefully you will see that these leaves are curled in "funny" ways. They aren't healthy leaves. Likely in a few days they will curl up and die.

I have never seen any research on this phenomenon, but my explanation is that the herbicide that was taken in last fall by our treatment sat all winter in the roots. Now that temperatures are warming, plant metabolism is starting, and the herbicide is able to exert its action. The leaf buds at the top of the shrub were able to get started "before" the roots were affected, but this was just a temporary phenomenon.

The same phenomenon can be seen in large buckthorn plants that have been basal barked. Here the leaves may come out and even look normal, but sometime around the end of May or early June they curl up and die. Although the whole buckthorn plant dies, it may remain intact for a year or two. Eventually, its roots rot off and the plant falls over. If you walk through an area where buckthorn plants had been basal barked in a past year, you should be able to simply push the whole plant over, or even pull it up by the roots.

Plants protected from burns around the bases of trees

I find it interesting that a number of plant species get an early start by growing in the bare zone around the bases of trees, especially our large oaks. There is always a bare area around these big trees. Because there is little or no fuel here, there is no fire. Away from the tree bases, plants that had already started to grow at the time we burned are knocked back. They aren't killed, but if their leaves are already up, they have to start over again. But since fire doesn't penetrate near the tree, plants can get a head start.

One of the woodland species where this phenomenon is obvious is zig-zag goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis), as the two photos here show.

This plant is especially interesting because it is one of the "first" plants to appear in our savannas, but it is one the "last" plants to flower and set seed. Generally, it doesn't flower until October.

I assume that it is a classical "short-day" plant, and is inhibited from flowering by long days. Only after the day-length starts to decrease in the late fall, is it triggered to flower. (There is an interesting plant physiology among short-day plants that is worthy of study.)

Post-burn planting

We generally wait until we have burned a unit before we plant it. This ensures that the area is bare and the seeds will reach the soil.

Yesterday, a fine sunny day, we planted purple milkweed, New Jersey tea, needle grass, and prairie dropseed, among others.

The photo shows Kathie's technique for planting prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) on the south-facing slope. She uses a bread knife to make a slice in the soil, lift it up, and slide a few seeds in with her other hand. This is a backbreaking, time-consuming way, but works.

We already have scattered prairie dropseed growing on this slope, including some remnant plants that were there before we started restoration. But more of this fine conservative plant won't hurt.

Among others I planted purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens) seeds. We had a reasonable number of seeds from scattered pods. As I discussed in my paper in the September 2009 issue of Ecological Restoration (downloadable from this web site), I have never seen a purple milkweed plant that I knew came from seed I planted. So this year, I set up a careful experiment to follow the results of planting. In each selected planting site, I pounded in a wooden stake with a unique number. Then I planted the seeds in four quadrats around each stake. I selected eight separate sites to plant.

It may take several years (if ever) to get visible plants, but I will know that if I see plants here they came from seed.

We had a good crop of New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) seeds this year, from a number of plants that are now flourishing in Unit 11C. The seeds of this species germinate better if they receive a heat treatment. Before leaving home, we dumped the seeds in boiling water for about 10 seconds, then quickly cooled them. At the Conservancy, we mixed the seeds with sawdust. I planted these primarily in savanna areas, since this seems to be where they grow the best. (We have never had a New Jersey tea plant develop in any of our planted prairies, but we have good plants scattered throughout the savannas.)

Our seed source for New Jersey tea is a native population found along a north-facing section of County Highway F.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Early post-burn plant growth

Yesterday I spent some time surveying those areas that we have already burned, including both the prairies and savannas. It doesn't take long this time of year, especially with a few warm days, for a profusion of plants to appear, even just a few days after a burn.

Some of these early arrivals are shooting star, golden Alexanders, dooryard violet, pussy toes, stiff goldenrod, pale Indian plantain, several of the Silphiums, and glade mallow.

Shooting star (Dodecatheon meadii) is one that is especially prolific right now in our White Oak Savanna (Unit 12A). This is especially impressive because that savanna was only burned six days ago! This species was already present in this savanna before we started restoration, but was suppressed under the heavy shade. As soon as we removed all of the "bad" trees and opened the area up, it flourished. It usually takes six to seven years in a restoration to get shooting star established from seed, but it is often able to hang on in the vegetative state for many years in degraded savannas. You can see evidence of the recent burn because the tops of the leaves are damaged. At the time of the burn, just the leaf tips were above ground. Since the fire only penetrates a few millimeters into the soil, most of the plant is protected.

Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) is a prairie/savanna species that does well in restorations and is one of the first species to appear in the spring. Again, it pops up quickly after a burn in both our planted prairies (such as the Barn Prairie) and savannas. Again, this species was also already flourishing in the savannas six days after the burn.

In the south-facing slope, which had been burned almost two weeks ago, things have had more time to grow. Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is a "warm-season" grass that is characteristic of this short-grass prairie. Although it doesn't flower until mid August, it begins to grow early. Because it is cespitose (a clump-former) it is fairly easy to identify early. In fact, its characteristic clumps can be spotted right after the burn (see Tom's Blog of 27 March 2010 for a photo). The photo here shows one of these clumps with charcoal still visible in the center of the clump and the leaves starting to grow.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is a typical woodland spring ephemeral that also thrives in our savannas. The photo shows a flowering patch that appeared just a few days after the savanna burn in one of our bur oak savannas (Unit 19B). Typical of many spring ephemerals, the flowers appear before the leaves.

One of the more common goldenrods in our planted prairies is stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida). This species is fairly easy to identify from its characteristic leaf shape, and the fact that it forms fairly extensive clumps. Even though it does not flower until late August, it appears early in the spring.

The species shown here are some that are fairly easy to identify even when they are beginning shoots. Those serious about restoration ecology would be advised to learn to identify plants at these early stages, because there are also a lot of "bad" plants that arise early that you might want to eliminate by spot spraying. Obviously, one does not want to eliminate good plants at the same time.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Fire whirl during prescribed burn

Last Monday during our big prescribed burn there was a fairly large fire whirl (also called a "dust devil") in the middle of the Pocket Prairie. I didn't see it, but Kathie and Chris did, although I have seen other ones.

The photo below is of a particularly spectacular fire whirl I found on Wikipedia.

The one in the Pocket Prairie did not have a fire component such as this photo, but was formed by black dust arising from the burn.

What causes a dust devil? They are a result of intense local heat remaining after the flaming front has passed by. This heat interacts with the air above to create a tornado-like structure which pulls the black dust up into the air. An upward spiralling motion usually results.

Although a dust devil is usually benign, dissipating quickly, occasionally flaming embers are pulled up into the air where they can be transported out of the burn unit, possibly resulting in spot fires. Thus, it is important to keep an eye on recently burned areas until they have cooled down.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Mop-up after savanna burn

Most prescribed burns have a few mop-up elements, but savanna burns often have lots. This is because there are almost always dead logs or standing dead trees that, despite the most careful attention, catch on fire. Such large logs or trees can often burn for a long time.

We deal with these burning logs in several ways. A day or two before the prescribed burn we "fireproof" all standing dead trees by carefully clearing grass, sticks, and other flammable debris from a wide zone at the base.

If a burning log is well within the burn unit, completely surrounded by black, we let it burn. Part of the prescription in our savanna burns is the elimination of dead wood, especially logs lying on the ground. (However, we like to retain some of our standing dead trees, called snags, as wildlife habitat.)

However, if a smoldering log is too close to the edge of the burn unit, then we put it out. This is because there is always the possibility of a wind shift that might pick up embers off such a log and carry them into unburned areas, causing a spot fire.

The photo shows Kathie putting out a smoldering log that was close to the edge of the Unit 19E savanna. It was about 30 feet from the fire break, probably safe enough, but no point in taking chances. It takes a fair bit of water, and rolling the log around to reach burning areas. Our pumper units, which have high pressure water, are ideal for this, but single logs, such as the one shown here, can generally be extinguished with water from a backpack water can.

The best time to find smoldering logs is late in the day, when the weather has started to cool and humidity has begun to increase. Also at this time of day the sun is at a steep angle and when backlighted the smoke is more visible.

We toured the whole burn area around 6 PM, checking for signs of smoke. Fortunately, most of the smokers were well inside the black and would cause no problem. Just a few required attention.