Ripples 1/20/17

After the recent ice storm, a couple of mild weather days afforded us the first opportunity to do habitat work in reasonable comfort.  With the help of volunteer Ray and intern Mikayla, we took to the forest to continue where we left off along Columbus St. last fall- where the honeysuckle and buckthorn thrive.  Or try to thrive. Even though our task was to cut, pile, and treat the stumps of these invasives, not glamorous work by any means, it felt so good to get out in the preserve again to try to improve the land.

The work reminds me of days long ago when mild winter days included making firewood.  The slushy wet snow meant wet feet unless one’s boots were properly oiled, and wet hands, regardless, because work gloves always were soaked.  The air has a damp, earthy smell of wet leaves and bark, but at least there is an odor, unlike the dry sterile air of the really cold days.  Working along, cutting away at the stems, there is so much to see: last fall’s deer rubs and last night’s tracks, drip marks beneath the trees, green woodfern and tan bracket fungi, woodpecker holes, a red squirrel’s imprints, wild cucumber husks- all familiar forest features and yet seeming different in the winter season. 

photo of squirrel tracks in the snow

Squirrel tracks

Chickadees follow unafraid to see what we are doing, examining the leftover berries of European cranberry and buckthorn-leftover because they are neither as nutritious or palatable as native fruit. It is somehow so rewarding to find in a tangle of honeysuckle the stem of a native tree or shrub, a black cherry or speckled alder, or even a lowly red-twig dogwood, that can be liberated from the onslaught of the invasive.  Carefully we trim the invaders from around the native plant in the hopes that we are turning the tables, allowing the native to someday reclaim the territory. 

Earlier in the fall we had seeded the area with a variety of shade-tolerant wildflowers meant to enhance the habitat for pollinating insects. We also hope to reduce the heavy shade of the honeysuckle/buckthorn canopy so that the bumblebees can thrive here.  One such bumblebee, the rusty-patch, has just been designated as endangered.  The species has been documented near here and we hope that we can provide a place for them, too, among our native plants and birds.

We have a sign on Conifer Trail that states that invasive plants are the bullies of the forest.  I enjoy that comparison- the invaders do seem to indiscriminately overwhelm all of the native plants save those which are already taller than the invasives.  Bullies are no better in a forest than they are in the human world, and they shouldn’t be tolerated in either.  So on we go, slogging in the slush, cutting and treating. When the time is right, we’ll re-plant to promote a more diverse and stronger forest community, all the while thinking about how lucky we are to live here on the Lakeshore in such a wonderful area.  Sometimes the task seems overwhelming, but after a while one can see bits of progress that add up in the long run.  Although it is hard work, we realize what we’re doing is good for nature. Our work also enhances places to visit, and that activity on the whole is good for us as well.

Happy 2017.  Onward and upward.  And pass the ibuprofen.

Photo- red squirrel tracks in the forest

Ripples 1/13/17

picture of barren farm field in winter

Land to be restored and converted

It is hard to imagine the potential impact of a piece of bare ground in the wintertime.  That potential is hidden, waiting for a little encouragement both from the weather and from the people who own and manage it.   This time of year, our land management team (two of our staff and our Property Committee) spend a lot of time thinking about that.

This year is an exciting one in that regard because many seeds have already been planted, literally, toward improving more than 50 acres of our property for beneficial insects, with dozens more to be planted in 2017.  Acres of forest and shrubland have been and will continue to be improved for wildlife within and around our existing preserves. We now have the opportunity for expanding that even further.  We recently received a donation of 60 acres of land along Woodland Drive – land that was at one time forested wetland, was artificially drained and converted to farmland.  It’s not that there’s a problem with it being farmland- we and our animals need to eat, after all; however, this land lies along the migration routes for millions of animals along Lake Michigan. At one time it supported those migrations.  People utilized the land in ways to contribute to our economy – which it did very well for many years.  Most recently it has been planted in soybeans, and this year it will likely be farmed in order to keep weeds down while we prepare for restoration.  This land has done it’s part for us.  Now, it is our intention to give something back to it.

Wildlife has lost a lot of land along the coasts of the Great Lakes. About a third of the songbirds that migrate through our region are decreasing in numbers each year.  That’s not a good thing for the birds, and probably not a good indicator for our own health.  Patches of habitat near the shore are precious to nature, so the acquisition of this property is very important to us and to the wildlife that shares our space. 

We’re very grateful for the donation that made this project possible. We’re already working with experts in the field of restoration and applying for funding to restore the onsite wetland.  This area will be open to the public for hiking and nature-watching as trails and a parking area are developed. At the same time, it will be a refuge for native plants and both migratory and resident wildlife.  It will take years and much work to restore, but in time native plants will call this place home. The soil and all that lives within it will heal, and many forms of life will benefit, including our own species.  This project in itself will make 2017 a great year for those of us who care about the nature of our Lakeshore.

photo: property as it is today

Ripples 1/5/17

photo of Great horned owl and its young

Great horned owl and its young

Even though it’s the middle of winter and seemingly too cold for such things, nature’s soap opera has been unfolding in my neighborhood. I tune in each night, quietly listening to catch the latest happenings. It started about a month ago while I was walking my pup. Across the field, I heard the soft hooting of an owl. I wasn’t surprised; a pair of great horned owls has been nesting in this area for at least the last four years. One year, I had the good fortune of seeing their young standing stoically on the white pine branches, glaring at me with their intense eyes. A different year, I saw the mated pair perched side-by-side near the top of a leaf-less tree. They were so close, they were touching and he would softly hoot to her and she would hoot back. Oh the romance!
I continued walking and heard the hooting again. I stopped, waited and listened. A different great horned owl responded, a higher pitched call from the female. If you listen to a dueting pair of great horned owls, the male’s hooting is lower than the female’s because his voice box is larger.  Great horned owls call to each other as part of their courtship ritual, but soon they will be silent, incubating their eggs.  They nest earlier in the year than any other Wisconsin bird.
The last couple of weeks, things have really been heating up even closer to my home with the appearance of another male great horned owl. This guy really has gusto, singing away in my backyard at all hours of the night, even at dawn. Finally, a receptive female answered his call! Persistence pays off.
It’s not just the great horned owls that are feeling amorous this time of year; red foxes are also pairing up. A few nights ago, one of our staff heard the barking calls of a red fox. Usually thought of as solitary animals, foxes are more social during the mating season. Like many new relationships, the male and female bond over affectionate play, spend time in close proximity to each other and constantly communicate. After an appropriate amount of time, they will retire to the den and the kits will be born about 50 days later.
Some songbirds have also been advertising their desire on nice days lately- cardinals, nuthatches, chickadees- even though it’s too early for them to nest.  Down in Florida, however, spring is already underway, and bald eagles already have hatchlings in their nests.
Valentine’s Day may be more than a month away, but love is already in the air for many animals in our area. Soon, cupid’s arrow will hit other animals in the neighborhood and the plot of this soap opera will thicken!

The attached photo is a great horned owl and it’s young taken from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Digital Library. 

Ripples 12/28/16

photo of pine conesPinecones are used to make wreaths, ornaments and other crafty projects. They are also be used as a bird feeder and even a firestarter. These cones are more than just a festive holiday decoration; they are part of an ancient form of reproduction for some of the largest and oldest organisms on the planet.

Cones are the reproductive structures of gymnosperms, the science term used for the group of plants that reproduce without flowers or fruit. Gymnosperm means “naked seeds” and refers to the unenclosed seeds. There are more than 1,000 gymnosperms in the world and this group includes spruces, pines, ginkgos and other conifers (cone bearing trees). Plants that produce flowers, have seeds that are contained in an ovary or fruit. These plants are called angiosperms and there are more than 300,000 in the world. Most angiosperms rely on help from pollinators such as bees, flies, butterflies and other animals to make seeds.

Most cone producing plants have male and female cones on the same tree. The female cones are what one pictures as a typical cone. They are woody and scaly and hold the seeds that will later form. The male cones appear for a short time as smaller, almost spongy looking cones and contain pollen. The scales on the female cones are tightly closed, except early in development. During this time, the scales open slightly to allow pollen to enter. The wind carries the pollen away from the male cones, which fall off shortly after the pollen is gone. After pollen enters, the scales of the female cone close to allow the seeds time to develop. For most species, seeds mature in about 6-8 months. However it can take 12 months for some cedars and 18-24 months for certain of species of pine. Once the seed is fully developed, the scales of the female cones flex open, allowing the winged seeds to escape and be carried by the wind. Some conifers require birds to break the cones open in order for the seeds to be released. For others, such as cedars and firs, the cones actually disintegrate and the seed scales fall off. Some trees, such as jack pines, require fire for seed dispersal. The heat of the fire opens the scales of the cone, releasing the seeds onto the ground that the fire just cleared of existing vegetation. The fire prepares the soil, reduces competition from other seeds and releases the jack pine seed.

It’s amazing to think the world’s largest living tree (by volume) started its life as a small seed from a cone. This tree is named “General Sherman” and is a whopping 275 feet tall and has a diameter of more than 36 feet at its base. The famous tree is located in Sequoia National Park in California and is believed to be about 2,500 years old! Cones may be a primitive and old method of reproduction, but they are highly successful.

In our area, there are many cone-bearing trees, including eastern hemlock, white cedar, balsam fir, and a number of native and non-native spruces and pines.  Because their cones can take a long time to mature, they differ in abundance from year to year.  They provide important food sources for wildlife, in addition to the interest and materials they provide for us.


Ripples 12/22/16

photo of a House Finch and Cardinal in an apple tree

House Finch and Cardinal in apple tree

A couple of weeks ago we were still planting trees.  One probably still could, but now that we’ve reached the solstice, Yule, and Christmas seasons we are preoccupied with other things.  The world is at least temporarily covered with a “blanket” of snow- a very appropriate analogy.  The fact that water, becoming solid with cold, could fall from the sky in little assemblages of soft crystals that protect and insulate the ground and the life within it seems miraculous.  As does the fact that frozen water floats rather than sinks, if all the ice sank our waterways might freeze solid and be inhospitable to life. In truth, life has adapted to the physical properties of water, taking advantage of every opportunity those properties afford.  The landscape only appears lifeless right now, except around our birdfeeders.  Actually, billions of living things are thriving around us as they always have.

Our perception of lifelessness and darkness, and longing to see life probably gives rise to the the early Yule traditions of bringing greenery into our homes to be decorated. We light fires and string up colorful lights against the dark.  It’s a perfect time of year to celebrate the birth of a Savior, or celebrate miracles in general.

In our house there is a Christmas tree, an invasive Scotch pine which we’ve cut and decorated lavishly.  In this case, we’re doing nature a favor by removing it from the land, and yet it gets one last hurrah as the center of our holiday decorations.  Just outside the window is an apple tree next to the bird feeders- this time of year it is decorated with old dried apples, cranberries and other fruit that we’ve hung for wildlife, and house finches, cardinals, blue jays, juncos, chickadees, and even a single fox sparrow which is still hanging around, either too smart or lazy to migrate further.  To me, that apple tree, bare and in need of pruning, is the real Christmas tree – full of life and hope for next spring.  In a couple of months those birds, at least the ones which survive the Cooper’s hawk’s raids, will begin singing in force to welcome spring.  Their kind has been here forever, and their intentions seem transparent.  They do what they needto get by, living in the moment.  Even the apparent bullying of the blue jays or the Cooper’s hawk herself doesn’t seem to carry any long-term harm, lacking the malice that some people can show each other.

The landscape of Christmas is full of hidden life and hidden potential.  People are full of hidden potential too.  The best way to observe that potential in nature is to be aware of what is around you, to think about life as it is in this moment.  Perhaps we would be better off appreciating each other that way as well.  If we truly use our potential in the coming year for the benefit of the natural world and each other, wonderful things will happen.

photo- a house finch and northern cardinal in an old apple tree