vegetation monitoring

Monitoring ecological restoration sites is what I used to do as a consultant. Despite the bugs, relentless sun, and travel, I enjoyed it thoroughly. Actually, sometimes I even enjoyed the bugs, sun, and travel! A double-edged sword to be sure. But I felt very fortunate to pay rent by looking at plants and thinking through ways to make restoration work better.

there are worse places to be, I suppose…

Some sort of monitoring is crucial to ensure that we are actually doing things right, or at least actively learning from mistakes (that’s another forthcoming post). Ecological systems are incredible complex. We can’t assume just because something is lush and green that it is “healthy” or is meeting the restoration goals we have. We have to get out in the field and understand what is going on before we can pass judgment. (Chris Helzer highlighted the importance of this in a recent post).

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) puts on a show, with Goldenrods (Solidago species) setting the background.

Field visits, whether intense and formal, or quick and casual, are also important moments for serendipity. Sometimes, we just happen to catch something new or interesting, which expands our knowledge as naturalists or inserts new factors into our stewardship calculations. These, of course, are usually observations that individuals in pre-industrial societies knew from an early age, but even full-time ecologists have to constantly struggle to put the pieces together.

For example, by wandering around my yard in the evening, I found groups of bees and wasps congregating on branches pretty motionless. I didn’t know why. A little Googling let me to the answer: turns out that male bees and wasps typically don’t return to the nest after they hatch, and they have to roost overnight like birds. This can be inside a flower, or together on a branch. Who knew? Not me, until I starting seeing it in the evenings.

Being humans with only so many hours in the day, and days in the year, we are also limited to how much data we can collect. Believe me, I’m the kind of strange person that wants to collect it all, and populates Excel sheets on the weekends with some of my free time. (No, I haven’t found a cure for this malady yet… other than interspersing it with idle time in the backyard with my kids).

A simple water-proof monitoring notebook. Each species has a 6 letter acronym. “RUDHIR 50” stands for Rudbeckia hirta (Black-eyed Susan), which covered approximately 50% of the plot.

For obsessives like me, we often have to take a step back and weigh the cost of gathering more data, for it will come at the expense of other work. I was in the field recently and decided after 7 of 84 vegetation plots to stop sampling. As I thought through the objectives of the rather long-term project, and the time it would take to do a quality job on another 77 plots, I realized that having this year’s data would not really reveal much of interest for the primary research question, so I stopped. Perhaps a more meticulously planned experiment would have realized this before the experiment began, but better late than never. (There are almost always some course-corrections in the flow of a project).

a post marking a transect in one of my prairie research areas

One project that required less formal monitoring was the pollinator plantings we made to buffer the waterway from the farm activities. These were planted in spring of 2017 and we receive annual rent payments on these buffers from the NRCS. This was the 3rd year of growth, so we should be able to really start seeing a transition from annual species to the perennial plants we hope will cover the buffer.

the work of Sr. Mary

Collecting detailed vegetation data would be overkill for this project. We don’t have a research project attached to it, and the NRCS requires only some basic and periodic maintenance of the site. But I like to walk the buffers several times throughout the year to see how the site is progressing, and to catch any problematic weeds early. I take some photos, make some notes in a field journal, and type them in to the project folder when I get back to the office. It’s a helpful way to see how my thinking about a site changes over time.

excerpts from my field notes

The first two years of establishment for herbaceous perennial species is always nerve-wracking. It looks like a failure. But plants are putting their energy into root development and waiting to burst up. Towards the end of the 3rd growing season, you start to see “results”.

In the photo below (8/9/19), Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) and Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) are providing nectar and pollen to the passing Swallowtail butterfly. Virginia Wild Rye (Elymus virginicus) is a grass that establishes quickly and forms the bulk of the vegetation here. The seeds of these plants will provide winter food for wildlife, as well as cover. Their roots hold the soil at the edge of a slope. All of them suppress annual weeds that can become problematic in the adjacent field, which is used for annual row crops.

I was very happy to stumble upon these vigorous plants. This was the same spots were I saw Sandhill Cranes foraging the year before.

I was also pleased to see evidence that the plants were being munched on, with some caterpillars frass (poop) collecting in the depression by the stem. Native plants feed the native food chain, all the way up to us.

The Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) was in bloom, providing nectar for a Monarch Butterfly.

Now that everyone can carry around a supercomputer with a nice camera lens in their pocket, getting in the field is just a good opportunity for photos.

a swallowtail nectaring on Pasture Thistle (Cirsium discolor)

a bee fly nectaring on Ironweed (Vernonia species)

I was most thrilled to find this Spotted Bee Balm (Monarda puntata) on Sept. 5th. In this very sandy field, it was only the 2nd growing season after seeding. I haven’t found M. puntata naturally occuring on our site, but it is native to the region and is at home in sand. The pink you see are bracts (leaves just below the flower). The flower is yellow and spotted, right next to the stem.

I also took some notes on a small field that we received a grant to plant to forest. We planted 1 year old bare root stems from the Indiana DNR nursery in spring of 2018. So we are now toward the end of the 2nd growing season in the ground. The sycamores did particularly well, and this one was 8 feet tall already!

Field monitoring is always full of surprises. Keep a sharp eye!

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