Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Cedar Maintenance Continues

The weather hasn’t been cooperating fully, but I’ve still managed to spend a little time each day working on the Cedar Maintenance.  This completed section is part of an eight acre field that I hope to finish up before the end of the month.

I try to take plenty of before and after photos to document my efforts.  Unfortunately, most of the small cedars don’t show up in a landscape photo.

The change displayed in this after photo is more a result of the appearance of a sunny afternoon than the loss of a few visible cedars.

The density of cedar growth varies considerably across the field.  I’ve estimated that, depending on conditions, it takes somewhere between 2 and 25 hours to clear the little cedars from an acre of ground.  It is somewhat discouraging to suddenly find yourself in a close growing forest of young cedars.

In some of the poorer soil areas, the cedars barely reach out of the short growing grass.

This beauty, just barely topping out at eight inches high, is the result of at least ten years of growth and is a giant in comparison to the other cedars nearby.  Within the body of the plant are die backs, resprouts and segments of short annual growth testifying to its struggle to survive.

My bushel sized tub can hold several hundred of these tiny plants.  This collection was made from an area just over a quarter acre in size and there is still room for more in the tub.

The prevalence of small cedars is influenced strongly by the other plants growing in the field.  This large Red Oak can be thought of as a cedar magnet.

The oak doesn’t actually attract cedars.  It’s birds that find a solitary tree to be an excellent roost.  Fruit eating birds, with bellies full of cedar berries, will flock to the tree to spend the night.  Before departing for the next days foraging, the birds will expel with their droppings the indigestible cedar seeds.  With their coats softened by the bird’s digestive juices, the seeds are in a perfect condition for germination.  Several seeds can be found in each dropping, so it’s common to find these little groupings of three or four seedlings growing tightly together.  The result is an ever growing population of cedars developing in the shadow of the oak.

The seeds for this group probably all fell together and benefited by the small nutrient boost provided to the soil by the bird dropping.  Fortunately, the majority of these seedlings will die before they are more than a couple of years old.

Enough of the seedlings do survive to create a cedar thicket beneath the oak tree.

Besides attracting flocks of seed dropping birds, the oak leaves provide a complication for those trying to clear out the small cedars.  The red of the leaf matches closely the red coloration of a winter stressed cedar.  Leaves propped up in the grass look much like cedars and the red cedars are often identical to a leaf.

I’ve found that Tuliptree seedlings are becoming invasive in many of the fields.  They are most prevalent along the base of banks formed by massive gully erosion that occurred in the fields decades ago.

Windblown Tuliptree seeds are carried by the wind until they fall over the bank.  Only a small percentage of the seeds end up producing trees, but that is still quite a lot of trees growing where I prefer they were absent.

The Tuliptree seed source is clearly visible at the edge of the woods south-west of the field.  Prevailing winds carry the seeds several hundred feet into the field.  Cutting and spraying the seedling Tuliptrees will be an added work item on next summer’s list.  I’ve resigned myself to the fact that while working to complete one item on my list, I will find several more items to add in its place.  I would hate to run out of things to do.

There are always neat things to be found on the small cedars.  This is the mud nest of a Potter Wasp.  The wasp creates a hollow ball of mud in which are placed several caterpillars and a single wasp egg.  The wasp larva feeds on the caterpillars and then pupates within the mud casing. 

The Comma butterfly mimics a dead leaf, but it clearly didn’t belong on this cedar stem.  Commas overwinter as adults and can often be seen flying on warm winter days.  I found this one on a chilly morning and it wasn’t about to move.

I carried the cut cedar, butterfly and all, and wedged it securely at the edge of the brush pile.  I figured that if the butterfly didn’t move for the rest of the winter, it would be just as sheltered here as it would have been in the field.

With a background of dead leaves, the butterfly’s camouflage worked quite well.  Afternoon temperatures topped out at about 55 degrees.  When I came by later, the butterfly had gone.  Hopefully, it went someplace more secure than the little cedars still to be cut.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Number 540 - Shining Clubmoss

December is not the best time for botanical discoveries, since most of the native flora has shut down in preparation for winter.  Despite this, I have just added Shining Clubmoss, Lycopodium lucidulum, as number 540 on my Blue Jay Barrens plant list.  Though it only grows a few inches tall, Shining Clubmoss is an evergreen plant that becomes quite visible when most everything else is brown.

The discovery was made while I was busy with my cedar maintenance project.  I was working my way along the north edge of a cedar thicket bordering one of the prairies and I noticed some green foliage that was much brighter than the typical mosses.

In all, there were about 60 small clumps of the Lycopodium growing in a slightly depressed area about 25 feet in diameter.

Vertical growth arises from a low growing horizontal stem.  The stem often becomes buried by debris and develops roots.  The rapidly growing stems can create a large collection of plants.

The narrow leaves are typically toothed from the midpoint to the tip.

In addition to spreading by way of horizontal runners, Shining Clubmoss produces bulblets which are tiny plants that fall to the ground and begin to grow.  Also, like all other Clubmosses, the plants reproduce by way of spores.  In the photo, bulblets are the growths on the upper right portion of the stem.  The yellow spore cases, some of which have opened to resemble empty clam shells, are located lower down in the photo at the base of slightly smaller leaves known as sporophylls.  With such a variety of reproductive strategies, it’s odd that these plants aren’t more common.

It’s always fun to add another plant to the Blue Jay Barrens list.  I’ll keep watching to see if the Shining Clubmoss turns up at other locations on the property.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Cedar Maintenance

I always have a list of maintenance activities that need to be completed.  When conditions prohibit me from working on higher priority jobs, I spend time on one of the maintenance list items.  Tasks from the maintenance list periodically get shifted to the priority list.  One such activity is what I term Cedar Maintenance, meaning that I maintain the open condition of a field by removing young Eastern Red Cedars from the area.  It has been ten years since I have conducted Cedar Maintenance in some of the prairie openings.  I decided that Cedar Maintenance needed to be brought up-to-date in order to prepare for management activities planned for next year, so over the next few months I will be searching for and removing young cedars from about 25 acres of prairie area.

Stumps still remain from my initial clearing efforts done 20 or more years ago.  Some of these stumps are as solidly in place as they were at the time of their cutting and will probably remain for decades as reminders of how conditions once were in the fields.

In some of the harsher areas, cedars have managed to grow only a few inches tall in ten years.  This small plant seems to have died back several times during the last few years.  Despite its small size and the fact that it doesn’t yet pose a threat to surrounding vegetation, this cedar is a target for removal.  While performing Cedar Maintenance, I remove any cedar that is large enough for me to see.  

The largest of the encroaching cedars was found in this field.  The ridgetop soils are a bit deeper and provide a slightly better growing environment than the extremely shallow soils on the slopes.

My medium sized loppers, now in their 25th year of service, measure 26 inches from end of handle to blade tip.  This largest of encroaching cedars topped out at 30 inches.  Had I planted this tree as a landscaping specimen ten years ago, I would be terribly disappointed in its rate of growth.

Checking the growth rings on the small cedar makes me think that it is one that I missed cutting ten years ago.  The age looks to be closer to 12 or 13 years. 

It’s hard to maintain a precise search pattern in large areas, so I use lines of orange lath to break the field into smaller units.

I then use rows of red and blue flags to break the units into manageable search areas.  After searching each area, I move the back row of flags forward to form the next area.  When I finish with a field, I’ll have seen every square foot of it.

I collect the cut cedars in bushel sized tubs and deposit the cut material on top of old brush piles.  Piling the cedars requires slightly more time, but removing the cut cedars allows me to clearly see that I have left no standing cedars in the management area.  This brush pile contains the remnants of the cedars removed when the field was first cleared.  At one time the height reached ten feet and I needed a short ladder to climb high enough to put more cedars on top.  The green branches in the back part of the pile are some medium sized cedars that were cut from the edge of the field.  The smaller pile in the foreground is from my current Cedar Maintenance.

This small pile, about two bushels worth, is composed of one Virginia Pine and about 200 small cedars.  It represents cedar growth on about one acre of prairie.  I spent two hours compiling this collection, with a little of that time spent looking at interesting things discovered in the field.

Cedar Maintenance generally requires that you be looking down most of the time.  Discovery of a rather large collection of Autumn Olive leaves caused me to look up.

Emerging near the base of a mature cedar is the trunk of a large Autumn Olive bush.

The Autumn Olive has grown straight up through the crown of the tree.  I watch for things like this, but foreign stems hiding inside a cedar are nearly impossible to spot.  Since rain was threatening, I marked the invasive shrub with bright orange ribbon, so I could come back on a dry day to cut and spray.

Leafy Autumn Olive branches don’t leave the security of the cedar until they are well above the ground.  I take documentary photos each time I find a large Autumn Olive.  My hope is to one day be able to show the photo of the last mature Autumn Olive to be found at Blue Jay Barrens.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Previously Mowed Field

Mowing does not leave a permanent, easily recognizable signature on the land.  Plants grow back and the area once again takes on a natural appearance.  Those familiar with the stages of natural succession that occur within a field, would suspect that there was a reason for the absence of woody species growing above the grasses, but the tracks of the mower have disappeared.  Last year at this time, the field to the left of the trail was in a condition identical to the recently mowed field on the right.  By next year, both fields should be displaying a similar appearance.

Indian Grass dominates during the autumn and winter seasons.  The seed heads of the early summer wildflowers have long since been overtaken by the stalks of tall prairie grass.

Despite the outward appearance of being a solid stand of Indian Grass, there are pockets of short grasses such as Little Bluestem and Side Oats Gramma scattered about the field.  From a distance, the tall grass effectively blocks these small openings from view.

In many areas, other grass species grow stem to stem with the Indian Grass, but lack the visual impact to be noticeable at a distance.  Here Little Bluestem and Prairie Dropseed occupy the spaces between the Indian Grass stalks.

A narrow valley running through the field provides perfect growing conditions for a stand of Canada Goldenrod. 

At one point in its transition from grain crops to prairie, the field was a monoculture of Goldenrod.  On the hillsides, where the soil was shallow and dry, prairie species gradually outcompeted the Goldenrod.  Now Goldenrod is confined to the deeper soils of the valley.

On November 17, three inches of wet snow brought the Indian Grass nearly to the ground.  Fortunately, the snow melted quickly and the grass stalks returned to an upright condition.  Rain just prior to the snow hydrated the stalks so they were able to bend without breaking.  Had the stalks been dry and brittle, they would have broken under the weight of the snow and stayed down permanently.

Not long after the snow, a storm front with wind gusts of 50 miles per hour whipped the stalks around for nearly a full day.  Stalks remained upright, but most seeds fell to the ground.

Whitetail deer commonly bed down in the thick stands of Indian Grass.  Judging by the number of beds I’ve seen in the field, the deer must frequently build new beds for their use.  Either that or I have seriously underestimated the size of the deer population.  Maybe they are like rats and every visible deer means there are a hundred you don’t see.

Of course, despite all of my efforts to eliminate them, there are some small cedars taking hold down in the grass.  Still, it will be several years before I will need to once again cut little cedars from this field.  Until that time, I can just enjoy the sight of an open grass field at least visibly free of woody invaders.