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!

“Not all that bristles is bad: in defense of thistles”

Thistles are plants that are well-known but not well-loved, at least by humans. Admittedly, they don’t often make the best impression on us thin-skinned, hairless apes. We’re just trying to go for a walk and enjoy nature. We already have to deal with poison ivy and ticks, and now we have to watch for plants with tiny little knives on the end of their leaves? C’mon!

Our disdain for these plants probably also has to do with the agricultural roots most of us have. Certain thistle species get into ag fields, and no way are we pulling those things by hand. Even the Bible suggests they are a curse, complements of Adam and Eve’s transgression (Gen. 3:17-18).

The most abundant thistle on the landscape is the poorly-named “Canada” or Field Thistle (Cirsium arvense). It is an invasive species, which means it is both non-native to this continent and causes significant ecological and economic harm. By Indiana law, it is also considered a noxious plant and landowners are legally obligated to take steps to control it (as we do here). It is a stubborn perennial plant that you don’t want in your ag field or your prairie planting. It blooms early, in June. Bull Thistles (Cirsium vulgare) are another common non-native thistle found in our pastures.

But just like those of us who come off as a like “prickly” on first encounter, we should give thistles another chance. There are several native thistles that are “well-behaved,” mixing in easily with other native grasses and wildflowers, and not a weedy problem within agricultural systems.

Pasture Thistle (Cirsium discolor) towards over neighboring plants, loaded with blooms.

Mostly importantly, native thistles are absolute magnets for pollinators, everything from showy butterflies to tiny native bees. Females of the long-horned bee species Melissodes desponsa are oligolectic on thistle pollen, meaning that their larva will not develop on any pollen unless it is a Cirsium thistle species! When thistles disappear, so does this bee species.

On the left is Swamp Thistle (Cirsium muticum), fighting it’s way up through a thick stand of hybrid cattail. I would like to think our prescribed fires have helped remove enough thatch to let a few more of these plants grow and seed.

Tall Thistle (Cirsium altissiumum) is an oak savanna species. Swamp Thistle (Cirsium muticum) has a beautiful deep-purple flower and is found in wetlands, including the fringes of Lake Galbraith. Pitcher’s Thistle (Cirsium pitcheri) is a federally-threatened plant found only on the sand dunes around Lake Michigan.

Bees and Swallowtails are both fans of Pasture Thistle.

But probably my favorite species, which is now in bloom in many of the roadsides in western Marshall county, is Pasture Thistle (Cirsium discolor). It hosts a bright pink (and sometimes white) bloom, nodding high in the breeze. I never fail to find it crawling with pollinators chowing down on the banquet of nectar and pollen. The two year-old plant dies after flowering (it’s biennial), but sprouts easily from seed.

I saw my first white-flowered variant of Pasture Thistle along 9C Road in August 2016.

(You can browse more about all these Cirsium species at the U. of Michigan database).

Neither of the major invasive thistles (Bull & Field Thistle) have this definitive white underside of the leaf, like this Pasture Thistle.

With all these redeeming qualities of beauty and function, surely now you can understand why they bear spikes. They are are an obvious defense against leaf-eating animals. You wouldn’t want to be constantly nibbled on, now would you? See, deep down, thistles are sensitive, reasonable plants on the inside, just making their way in the world. You just need to get to know them.

This post was inspired by Chris Helzer‘s great thistle post from 2015. He also created this great printable/shareable icon to spread the thistle love:

news round up

Can’t believe it’s been 4 months already since I’ve posted some links, but here’s your chance to peek over my shoulder at what I’m reading:

Diversifying Conservation (The Prairie Ecologist blog)

It’s Time to Rethink America’s Corn System: Only a tiny fraction of corn grown in the U.S. directly feeds the nation’s people, and much of that is from high-fructose corn syrup (Scientific American)

The zoo beneath our feet: We’re only beginning to understand soil’s hidden world (The Washington Post)

Can the Prairie Generation save rural America? (Christian Science Monitor)

New Evidence Shows Popular Pesticides Could Cause Unintended Harm To Insects (NPR)

Recreational Mowing Syndrome: What is it and how to treat it? (Purdue University)

The Most Controversial Tree in the World: Is the genetically engineered chestnut tree an act of ecological restoration or a threat to wild forests? (Pacific Standard)

A Water Crisis Is Growing In A Place You’d Least Expect It (NPR)

Maine Becomes First State to Ban Styrofoam Containers (USNews)

I work in the environmental movement. I don’t care if you recycle. // Stop obsessing over your environmental “sins.” Fight the oil and gas industry instead. (Vox)

Lake Erie now has legal rights, just like you: Ohio voters passed groundbreaking legislation that allows citizens to sue on behalf of the lake when it’s being polluted (Vox)

NYC Shows How Electric Vehicle Fleets Can Create Dramatic Savings: Recent data from the New York City government reveals the dramatic cost savings for tax-payers by switching to electric vehicle fleets for city operations. (Interesting Engineering)

The legacy of 4,500 years of polyculture agroforestry in the eastern Amazon (scientific paper from the journal Nature)

Earth system impacts of the European arrival and Great Dying in the Americas after 1492 (academic paper)

In Defense of Biodiversity: Why Protecting Species from Extinction Matters (Yale e360)

Humans Are Speeding Extinction and Altering the Natural World at an ‘Unprecedented’ Pace (NYT)

Bill McKibben Calls FBI Tracking Of Environmental Activists “Contemptible” (CleanTechnica)

Marshall County Community Foundation Spotlight – Will Erwin: See the historical wonders of Will Erwin’s Marshall County, Indiana, farm and listen to stories about his service. (a video tribute)

Bioblitz results

Well, it’s a little belated to report, but the 2019 Indiana Academy of Science (IAS) Bioblitz is a wrap! On June 29-30, we had over 30 scientists come from across the state (actually, as far away as North Dakota) to count & collect as many species as they could in 24 hours.

Dr. Jeff Holland, a Purdue forest beetle entomologist, was the bioblitz chair for IAS. I wish I could work with him every day! He is seen here 2 weeks prior to the event, setting up beetle pheromone traps that he would examine the day of the blitz.

This event was a dream of Sr. Mary and myself since the day I started 3 years ago. We were so honored to be selected as hosts for this special event.

When you see this license plate, you know that you’re hangin’ with the right crew.

Lindenwood graciously opened up their doors to host scientists so that they could be well-rested after some brutally hot hours in the field. Our dining services prepared a great evening banquet that the scientists enjoyed out under the tent on the MoonTree prairie. MoonTree staff rolled out the red carpet on snacks, set-up, tear-down, and all manner of logistics. I couldn’t have asked for a better team!

The temperature soared to 90 degrees, but we kept the ice water flowing and made sure folks took breaks.

We gathered at noon on Saturday and made introductions, looked over property maps, and split into teams according to taxa.

Over at the kids table, my little ones were busy painting with plants and making music with natural instruments, thanks to Elsa, one of our Maria Center residents.

From mid-afternoon through the evening, we had tours and talks scheduled for the public. We wanted to provide opportunities for people to engage with scientists in a relaxed environment.

Despite a lot of planning & great efforts made by our marketing staff, we just didn’t have much of a crowd. It was a little discouraging, but I was reminded that our primary goal was to facilitate the work of the scientists and make sure their quality work can go down in the literature for future students of our natural communities. That is something our team did very well, so I was pleased.

Jeremy Sheets, Senior Wildlife Biologist with Orbis Environmental Consulting, shows off the net he uses to trap and study bats.

After dinner, I put the drone up to take a few shots from above.

I even happened to come across the cows going back out to pasture after taking a drink. It made for an interesting aerial shot. I’ve noticed some very interesting patterns in vegetation at the border of grazed and ungrazed areas that are separated by a fence. Another thing to study someday!

We got ready for the evening by – what else? – making some s’mores. MMMm!

As the light died down, the efforts continued. The entomology team set up a couple lights, including a giant 1,000 watt light on a 10 ft pole at the highest point on MoonTree. What happened next was breath-taking (and, you had to be careful not to open your mouth when it happened!)

As much as we might dislike having creepy crawlies inside our home, they are indispensable members of the web of life (outdoors), and human life would simply not be possible without them.

There is increasing evidence that insect populations are facing severe challenges worldwide. It’s ever more urgent that we advance education on insects and press for their preservation.

Dr. Holland reported that this bioblitz was probably the best night he had ever had with the bug light. That made me incredibly happy and certainly made all the effort in setting up this event worthwhile!

The plant team surveys the western shore of Lake Galbraith on Sunday morning.

Sunday morning saw the field crews out and about again, while some others spent the morning looking at specimens under field microscopes in the tent.

Spiders, spiders everywhere! We estimate around 80-100 species sampled from just a small area.

Dr. Holland mounted up several beautiful specimens for us to see under the microscope, like this Ghost Tiger Beetle.

We used the iNaturalist smartphone app to encourage people to log their sightings on our shared project. We could then look at each other’s observations at a single online location. 15 observers logged a total of 120 species, as shown in this screenshot.

We had a great naturalist by the name of Carl Strang, who put in a great effort to survey the singing insects. His meticulous records and photos are a valuable contribution to the scientific record. He recorded a new species for Marshall County in the process, the eastern striped cricket. He also picked up counting the Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) and Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), as we didn’t have anyone counting those. Be sure to see his reflection (and photos) on his blog here.

Grape plume moth (Geina periscelidactylus) by Carl Strang
The Hebrew (Polygrammate hebraeicum) by Carl Strang

Tim Rice counted and photographed birds for us. You can see his photos on his Flickr page here.

Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) by Tim Rice

We gathered one final time, at noon on Sunday, to talk about preliminary species counts and interesting observations. Unsurprisingly, we found that with the cold, rainy spring, some species seemed to be appearing later in the season than average (we heard a Fowler’s toad calling, which was very rare for late June).

We finished the weekend exhausted, but thankful that we could see so much of Creation on display, in the nooks and crannies and hidden places that we are often too busy to see.

I’ll have to leave you in suspense for the final species count. We won’t really have a good idea until the data can be reviewed during the rest of the summer. Eventually, we’ll put it all together and publish a report in the Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science

Until then, keep your eyes and ears open! Expect the unexpected.

The Unexpected Cycnia (Cycnia inopinatus) feeds on Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) at MoonTree Studios.

talking prairie plants on WNIT’s Outdoor Elements

I had the pleasure to take a trip to Potato Creek recently and share about native prairie plants with WNIT’s Outdoor Elements team. Our segment aired recently and is available online here. WNIT has put together some really great programing, all of which is published online.

Vince Greschem, one of the co-hosts, is a MoonTree Studios elder. He got started in his career at Potato Creek and worked closely with Sr. Mary in restoring the prairies on the property. It was great to look out over her handiwork and appreciate the folks who have maintained those systems in a healthy condition over time

While you’re here, I think I’ll post a few photos of the species we discuss in the program.

Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) attracted this Peck’s Skipper (Polites peckius), who wasn’t sharp enough to spot the Ambush Bug ( Phymata sp.) who was lurking in the petals. Can you see it? Watch out!
My camera doesn’t do it justice, but this is a Dogbane Leaf Beetle (Chrysochus auratus) that I found at home on my Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum). It’s color seems to change according to the angle at which you view it. Dogbane is in the same plant family, Apocynaceae, as the milkweeds (Asclepias spp.).
Milkweed Tussock Moth (Euchaetes egle) caterpillars on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) at my home. I never tire of seeing these fuzzy things! The monarch prefers to spread her risk by only laying an egg or two per plant. This moth does the opposite, mobbing a single plant with dozens of individuals, which can devour whole plants.
We didn’t discuss grasses in the show, but I thought the dew-drenched spiderwebs on this Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) were pretty neat.


bees from above

My child, eat honey, for it is good,
   and the honeycomb is sweet to the taste. (Prov. 24:13 NLT)

We do have a couple hives of bees at our greenhouses for honey production. More on that later. But something happened at home that I thought some readers might find interesting.

Sometimes in life, you get a free-bee.

European honey bees (Apis mellifera) quickly became naturalized on the American continent after European contact. My understanding is that many indigenous communities found (and exploited) these strange new insects before they even knew of the existence of the white man. They were known as the “white man’s flies.”

Most native bee species have a few individuals hibernate underground, while the majority of the colony dying off as the chill advances. Honey bees overwinter as a whole tribe by consuming their stockpiled honey and vibrating their wings for warmth. If they survive and enjoy a good spring with ample nectar flow on the landscape, they can split in two hives (or sometimes one just decides to move).

Like many hive-hosts, we’ve had mixed success getting ours to overwinter. Our last colony died and our supers (boxes) just sat empty. But I saw some activity at the entrance the other day. Not wanting to get my hopes up, I presumed it was just more pirates from another colony looking for a free honey snack stock-piled from the previous set.

But my friend Michael from Vintage Honey Bee confirmed that a new hive had indeed moved in. He found several indicators: dead bees and old frass (poop) were found ejected at the entrance, lots of drones (stingerless males apparently good for nothing except sperm), female workers arriving back at the nest laden with full pollen sacs, and guard bees patrolling the entrance.

I’d like to think that the flower-buffet we’ve laid out in the yard made the spot more attractive and put these boxes on their new home short-list. Either way, it’s just a free gift of abundance from the sky, swarming with excess.

kids at Moontree Studios

While I do plenty of traditional land stewardship activities on our property – like prescribed fire, habitat restoration, and invasive species control – I try to also make connections with the broader community. Sometimes that means taking the show on the road, and sometimes it means hosting.

Last month, we had the privilege of hosting a group of kids from the Plymouth Parks Department summer camp program. We set them lose on the flower-filled grounds of Moontree Studios.

who doesn’t love Moontree?

I love working with kids (as long as chaperones are present!). The wonder and joy of exploring creation is still right at the surface and doesn’t take much (if any) coaxing.

Look closely…

Our first activity was giving them a blank sheet of paper on a clipboard and asking them to pretend they were pollinators in search of flowers. Did we have enough flowers on the landscape? Were their different shapes and colors? Pretend you’re a bee… now buzz off!

With such an open command, each child’s individuality came through. Some drew flowers in a single color, focusing on form. Others wanted more true-to-life shades. Some counted the flower species up exactly. Others just got distracted by a cool bug.

Next, we gave them a strip of duct tape that we put around their wrist as a bracelet, sticky side out. Find a flower petal or two, and make a pretty bracelet. They didn’t take much prodding.

As I was drifting from group to group, I would briefly engage with kids and look at the plants with them. I spotted a spittle bug (watch this great video!), and I showed them how this little creature makes a bubble-bath home to protect himself from predators.

The best part came 10 minutes later, when one boy found a spittle bug all on his own.

This and many other wonders were known to so many kids of the Boomer generation, who grew up in close contact with wild spaces. Many of these spaces are gone, along with the footpaths, kids bicycles, and play forts.

At its most basic, it doesn’t take a lot of complicated planning to connect kids to nature, it just takes our commitment and prioritization. With as much as we know about child development and natural communities, we should see their right to explore and connect on par with the need for education, nutrition, and healthcare.

a trip to Whiterock Conservancy

I took some time off recently to attend a family gathering in Iowa, where a few generations ago my family first homesteaded on the prairie. We decided to stop a couple places on the way to take advantage of having everyone in the car for a road trip.

Our first stop was at Starved Rock State Park, just off of Interstate 80. It has some interesting geology that is unique for northern Illinois. There is a nice system of trails, though with the heavy traffic the park receives, it was a little worse for wear. We somehow managed 3-4 miles in mud and stairs without any ticks, medical emergencies, or emotional breakdowns.

Can you spot the groundhog? He made quite a show of his rock climbing abilities for us

Highlights included a water snake, a giant millipede, and lots of beautiful streams and canyons.

The earth paints slowly, with liquid gravity.

The next day we stopped for a long break at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, which we hadn’t seen since we started a family. The refuge is thousands of acres of habitat located in the heart of corn country, and is one of the largest tallgrass prairie restorations on the continent. They have an active “friends group” (non-profit) that participates in programming and fund-raising, and their prairie learning center is top notch. Suffice it to say, I was a little excited!

An educational display on prairie restoration tools.
Plant plugs in a demonstration/learning greenhouse.
The incomparable roots of Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)

Neal Smith has 700 acres of it’s restoration fenced in for a few dozen bison and elk. Other than rounding them up annually for vaccinations, they leave them be. We didn’t get a close up, but we saw them on the hill.

We lodged that evening at an old farmhouse at Whiterock Conservancy, an organization I have been eyeing for a couple years.

Home, home on the range… a morning filled with the songs of grassland birds.

Whiterock Conservancy is a 5,500 acre non-profit land trust that balances sustainable agriculture, natural resource protection and public recreation on the landscape… Whiterock Conservancy was formed ten years ago to manage one of the largest land gifts in the history of Iowa generously given by the Garst family. Today it stewards 5,500 acres along the scenic Middle Raccoon River Valley near Coon Rapids, IA. The gorgeous Whiterock landscape that attracts visitors from all over the state, region and nation is a mix of savannas, rolling pastures, native and restored prairies, wetlands, riverside bluffs, fishing ponds, crop ground, and unique historic, geologic, and archaeological sites.

Trailhead signs to orient visitors.

I appreciated the simplicity and focus of their mission and the way they integrated the various aspects of the land community. Far from any metropolis or large natural area, it was a very unique place.

Educational signs for field days and tours.

The Prairie Strips project of Iowa State is research that I’ve been following for several years, and I was very pleased stumble upon this demonstration site. “The STRIPS project is composed of a team of scientists, educators, farmers, and extension specialists working on the prairie strips farmland conservation practice. Our research shows that prairie strips are an affordable option for farmers and farm landowners seeking to garner multiple benefits. By converting 10% of a crop field to diverse, native perennials farmers and farmland owners can reduce the amount of soil leaving their fields by 90% and the amount of nitrogen leaving their fields through surface runoff by up to 85%. Prairie strips also provide potential habitat for wildlife, including pollinators and other beneficial insects

Demo site. I saw several researchers in the field as I was sipping my coffee on the front porch.

This is where I’m supposed to write something snappy to sum it all up… but that’s enough commentary and photos. More later… Have a nice weekend!