Tuesday, 12 May 2020

A spring morning amble

Image of woodland in the early morning light

View from the front porch of the squirrel farm.

It is about time that I acknowledge maybe the biggest difficulty I have writing, especially about land stewardship; particularly living on the squirrel farm. My office has a large window behind which sits my desk. The heating vent sits on the floor in front of the window. I am sitting here at my desk hot air blowing at my feet staring out the window with geranium plants flanking my face, competing with me for the precious light outside. How can I sit here on such a beautiful spring morning when all I want to do is go outside?

The last frost date for this part of the state is right around May 15th, so it should be no great surprise that the air outside this morning is a frigid twenty five degrees. That same air is really dry, so dry that while we are getting a hard freeze, there is no frost. The sun has risen high enough over the south ridge that at 7:15 am, we are fully bathed in that rich golden sunlight that photographers call the golden hour.

When I am walking the land and losing myself in the small and infinite world around me, I have no notebook to record the experience. Even if a notebook is tucked under my arm, I have no desire to pull it out and lose the moment trying in vane to capture it. This is the paradox of the naturalist, of every erstwhile wander and those watching the robin and peewees plying their trade just outside the window.

Out the door

I am not, by nature, a particularly literate person. I am a landowner who wants to give back some of what the Wisconsin outdoors has given to me. Today, that means pouring another cup of coffee, showering and spraying down my cloths with permethrin before heading out the door. Two days ago, while digging a trench, I acquired my first tick of the season. While that critter was a dog tick, the unwanted harbinger put me on notice that tick season is here. As the mercury climbs, the ticks will become active … and hungry.

By 9:15 am on this spring morning the temperature has climbed to 38 degrees with bright sunshine and little wind. The first bloodroot make an appearance just north of the driveway. Their leaves, nearly three inches across, spread out to grab sunlight and power the impending flower production sure to arrive in a matter of days. Boxelder and buckthorn leaves are opening. The spring sap flow halts dormant season cutting and stump treatment. While dormant trees readily take herbicide like Garlon 4 down into their roots, the emergence of leaves means flow will be moving away from the roots. Any chemical applied now will be pushed right back out.

For the next two six weeks, the only hope of preventing this year’s seed crop will mean cutting the stumps at waist height. I will need to return later in the summer to remove the trunks and treat the stumps once the normal leaf out period is over and the roots are once again ready to take nutrient downward once again.

Image of rock wall viewed from atop the wall

Rock wall marking the section line is nearly wide enough for a cart.

Surprise me

The aim this spring morning is to take a slow stroll through the woods to see what spring on the squirrel farm wants to reveal about itself. I make my way north from the driveway along an old stone wall. It is only 3-4 feet high, but for most of its length, the wall is wider than it is tall. The road we live on begins to veer away to the west less than 200 feet past the driveway. The area was platted and parcels sold off thirty years ago, but this wall is much older. There are red oak trees growing out of it flanks that first sprouted nearly a century ago.

Making my way deep into the woodland, the wall stays on my left hip. I turn to look over my right shoulder I look directly at our living room window and am reminded that homes and roads here no longer obey cardinal compass directions, as farmers who settled this land did. I pull out my smart phone and open the compass app. Sure enough, that rock way runs directly north and south, and it suddenly clicks in my mind that this is no random wall, it marks the section line that once would have declared the boundary between two settler farmsteads.

Not all surprises are welcome

There is so much more to learn; nearly every step reveals something new. Depending the slope along the wall, my way is blocked by dense black locust saplings. I will need to cut, stack and burn them this fall. Black locust are native to Wisconsin. Oak and hickory savannah covered this land prior to settlement, and black locust were not typically food there. Farmers planted them to harvest as supply of young trees for fence posts. Fast growing, rot resistant and straight, locust posts filled an important need.

Today, their nasty thorns and prolific seed production make them most unwelcome. Because black locust is a legume, nearly every tool I have to control locusts comes with its own drawbacks. Fire stimulates seed germination. Pulling saplings out by the roots opens the soil (encouraging erosion) and causes locust seeds to germinate. Mowing kills top growth, but the black locust simply re-sprout. Most effective herbicides persist in the soil and kill nearby native plants. Getting this problem under control will be a long and unpleasant slog.

Back on what was once a trail leading to the house, nuthatches flit from trunk to trunk, feeding on the newly emerging insects. A pair of wood thrush hop across the lawn near the house. Every walk in the woods so far is a new adventure. I cannot wait to see how the land responds to its new steward. Perhaps the care I provide can begin to match the wisdom the it will impart in exchange.

April 2020

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Get Active in the Woodland this Spring

Image of boxelder bud opening

Boxelder, while not a welcome guest, is among the first trees to leaf out each spring.

Spring in the woodland brings promise and challenge. Yesterday saw the first violets of the spring on the squirrel farm, a five acre woodland property my wife Anette and I  recently purchased. These blossoms, however, are in our lawn where the abundance of sunlight and relatively dry soil no doubt hasten their display. Anette spotted our first pileated woodpecker in the top of a dead elm along the driveway.

Last week, a male bluebird set up residence in the backyard. He enjoys using a five foot tall stump in the middle of the yard as his primary perch. From there, he has a 360 degree view of his domain; his proud stance and fluttering wings announcing him dominance to any would be rivals.

Invasive shrubs threaten the squirrel farm

While the cool April holds back many from breaking their winter dormancy, garlic mustard thrives with some plants already setting flower buds. The property has patches up to twenty feet in diameter, with a larger stretch along the banks of an intermittent stream. Scattered plants elsewhere on the property promise an uncontrollable problem if the infestation is not dealt with in the year or two.

Image of buckthorn on brush pile

Cut buckthorn and wild grape vines fill a brush pile waiting to burn once the snow flies.

Common buckthorn is another serious problem at the squirrel farm. Because we were not able to get into the woods until a few weeks ago, my first priority was to cut and stump treat as many large, seed producing, trees as possible. Leaves are now beginning to emerge. That means sap is flowing. Because the roots are pushing flow upward, the stumps will not absorb the Garlon 4 and carry it down to the roots. This translocation will only resume once the trees have bloomed and leaves have fully opened. That will not happen until sometime in mid June. My hope is to have buckthorn cut and stacked for burning when the snows arrive in December.

Image of bush honeysuckle

Honeysuckle leaves open as this woodland invader prepares to menace another growing season.

Another invasive shrub is the bush honeysuckle. Yes, the squirrel farm also has it share of this bad boy of the woods. Because it emerges even earlier than buckthorn, I got to deal with only a small portion of the bushes scattered across the squirrel farm. And like buckthorn, it will need to wait for late summer and fall for removal.

Image of mayapples

Mayapples unfold their umbrella of leaves to greet another spring.

Spring brings the promise of better times

Mayapples began emerging last week and are now beginning to spread their umbrella shaped leaves. Heavy shrub growth has changed the character of Wisconsin woodlands over the past forty years. Many spring wildflowers that were once common are all but gone from or woodlands. One of the most robust woodland spring wildflowers, mayapples can persist in deep shade that prevent many of their native neighbors from thriving.

My challenge is to remove those invasive shrubs and open up the canopy enough to allow native woodland wildflowers to return. Once light reaches the ground other woodland flowers and grasses will once again take up residence.

Those ground layer plants, along with leaf litter will provide enough fuel to permit returning fire to the land. Southern Wisconsin was, until European settlement, a landscape dominated by fire. Lightning and fires set by Native Americans regularly burned the prairies, savannah and open woodlands the covered much of the lower two-thirds of the state.

Image of gooseberry

Gooseberry bushes are an important woodland inhabitant. They provide valuable wildlife food.

A fire dominated land

The squirrel farm was dominated by red oak, white oak and bur oak. Because of the slopes and rocky soil, those trees were probably scattered so widely that their branches seldom touched. Oak trees have relatively thick and corky bark. The wildfires that regularly visited the squirrel farm prevented shrubs from getting established. Likewise, fire killed maple, cherry, black walnut and other tree species whose bark could not tolerate fires of even low intensity and short duration. Grasses and wildflowers bounce back quickly from fires, their roots taking up the nutrients left in the ash.

As a result, the squirrel farm probably resembled a park like setting; the hillside dotted here and there with large spreading oak trees. The stream would have hosted shagbark and possibly bitternut hickory, owing to the moist soil and higher humidity. The abundance and variety of grasses, sedges and wildflowers would have provided food for a wide range of bugs, spiders, and all manner of insects; both crawling and flying. These would have supported abundanant wildlife, small and large.

Our farming neighbors will continue to make sure that the deer population is kept well fed with corn and grass. The landowners who neglect their woodlands will keep squirrels supplied with hickory nuts and black walnuts. My mission will be to provide homes for badgers and bobcats; grouse and woodcock. A healthy plant community makes abundant wildlife possible.

2018

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Volunteer: Build Skill and Confidence

Volunteer using chainsaw to cut up a boxelder tree.

Want to learn firsthand skills you can use on your land? Your best bet just might be by helping somebody else. Every year dozens of volunteer organizations like the Nature Conservancy and Prairie Enthusiasts, Pheasants Forever and the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association donate thousands of hours to conserve the natural resources of our state.

Most of the work is done on public lands or non-profit nature preserves. Volunteer groups will sometimes give their time to help private landowners who have conservation projects that support their mission. Contact one of these groups when you plan your next conservation project. Some hunting groups provide free or low cost professional consultation to help you develop your wildlife improvement plan. They may also help you find matching grants to help pay for it.

Wisconsin DNR welcomes volunteers at their parks, as well as state wildlife and natural areas. State park volunteers assist with a wide variety of tasks from hosting campsites and staffing visitor centers to maintaining trails. There are more than 650 state natural areas (SNA) protecting the natural heritage of Wisconsin. SNA volunteers help protect rare plants and animals; getting up close and personal with some of the coolest natural resources in our state.

Volunteer This Weekend

Trout Unlimited is one of those groups that help all of us by doing conservation work on Wisconsin’s trout streams. This Saturday, you can learn several important skills while helping to improve the shoreline of Smith-Conley Creek, south of Ridgeway in Iowa County.

This volunteer work day runs from 9:00 AM to noon. The crew will remove large boxelder trees that are hazards to trout anglers and disrupting steam flow. This is a good opportunity to watch experienced sawyers at work and get more comfortable around chainsaws. You will also learn how to construct brush piles for burning or providing wildlife cover. Contact Jim Hess if you plan to attend or need additional information

One additional piece of equipment that is likely to be used is a powered capstan. It is a gasoline engine that can be tied off to a truck or large tree. The engine turns shaft, called a capstan, that resembles a sewing thimble. a long rope is tied off to a tree and loosely wrapped around the capstan. An operator starts the engine and take up the slack on the loose end of the rope. As the rope tightens, the spinning capstan pulls the tree an the other load end of the rope, while the operator hold tension on the slack end. Powered capstans are especially useful for removing fallen trees from stream beds. The first time I saw a powered capstan at work I put it on my Christmas list.

Find the Right Group

Wisconsin groups actively involved in conservation groups include:

Ducks Unlimited, Wisconsin
Ice Age Trail Alliance
Nature Conservancy, The – Wisconsin 
Prairie Enthusiasts, The
Wisconsin Waterfowl Association

Conclusion

If you want to develop your conservation skills while helping out in the community, consider volunteering a few hours this weekend. You will get plenty of exercise, meet some new neighbors and maybe pick up some pointers you can use to improve your property.

 

 

January 2018

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Great Brush Pile Burning

Author with leaf blower brush pile burning in the background.

There is more to burning a brush pile than dousing it with gasoline and throwing a match at it.

Mid winter is a great time for brush piles burning in Wisconsin. My wife Anette and I unpack the Forrester: first the sled; then the leaf blower, pump sprayer and torch fuel. Fill the chainsaw with gas and bar oil. No need to bring along extra as the saw will see limited work today. Some snacks, tea and juice will keep us happy through the upcoming afternoon. Finally, I tuck some dry kindling and a roll of old construction prints what will be our starter.

A mid January thaw during last week put the burn day in doubt. Forecast snow on Sunday night meant plenty of snow cover for the Martin Luther King holiday and our brush burning. A moderate snow, light winds and weather in the twenties meant we will be comfortable all afternoon.

The sled is half full and that is just fine with me. Anette grabs the rake closes up the car are we leave the county highway behind. The local snowmobile club came through this fall after harvest and dragged a beautify trail across the corn stubble. Access to the Vermont creek will be quick and smooth. I throw the rope across my shoulder and make fast work of getting to the easement.

Our first brush pile was made during two days work in early and late fall. The pile is made up almost entirely of honeysuckle and buckthorn with a couple small boxelders for good measure. The first task is blowing the snow off the pile and clearing a small ring around the pile.

It takes one calorie to raise the temperature of one pound of liquid water one degree Fahrenheit. To melt that same pound of ice to liquid water requires 36,150 calories of heat. To take that pound of water from 32 degrees to its boiling point requires a mere 180 calories of heat. However, to boil off that heat and drive it out from soaking wet wood require a colossal 241,765 calories. This is called the latent heat of melting and the latent heat of evaporation.

That frozen wet wood on my burn pile needs to thaw out heat up and drive off its water, then continue up to the 700 degrees needed for wood to Ignite. Now consider that there is a cold wind trying to carry off the precious heat from my fire. No wonder it is so hard to get a brush pile to burn in the dead of winter.

Blowing the snow from the pile and around it suddenly makes a lot of sense. So does bringing along paper and dry kindling. These will make sure I have fuel that can easily light and stay burning long enough to dry our surrounding wood in the pile.

Torch fuel is a two to one mix of diesel fuel and gasoline. Diesel has a low ignition point but a high flash point which makes it much safer to work with than straight gasoline.

A wise friend finally put me straight about using accelerants on brush piles. “You don’t want the torch fuel to burn. You want the torch fuel to make the wood burn. Let it set there for ten minutes and see what difference it makes.” He was right! All my life I would pour fuel on a pile and light it, never understanding that the fuel was sitting on top of the wood and burning itself off without heating up the wood enough to get it to ignite.

Now I pour on a quart where I would have used a gallon. By walking away for ten of fifteen minutes, the diesel has time to soak into the wood. There is no big whoosh of flame, instead the dry kindling and paper take off and heat up the surrounding wood that is ready and raring to burn.

Snow on the ground means embers will not ignite surrounding vegetation, making it safe for a couple of people to burn several piles at once. Many towns are weary of issuing burn permits in the spring and fall when dry grass and leaves make spot fires from brush piles a real danger. Winter burn permits are easy to get and are easy to watch.

Anette keeps vigil using the rake to push remaining branches from the edges into the coals where they are quickly consumed.

I head upstream to a downed tree that needs to be cut and stacked. It takes a half hour to get the pile set, but because this is a black walnut that is not yet finished drying out, our efforts to burn the pile meet frustration. After several failed attempts, it is time to move on to a third pile.

Like the first pile this is one has plenty of honeysuckle, which burns easily, buckthorn that burns okay when dry and preheated, and boxelder that has laid there for several years. As this large tightly packed pile springs to life, Anette breaks out cookies, chocolate hot tea. The snow is flying all around; we relax and enjoy the now fading sun as it forces itself through the snow and cloud cover.

As the sun begins to fade, I once again take out the leaf blower. There is a large bed of coals and large sections of trunk burning in the middle of the fire. There remains plenty of brush around the downwind edge of the pile that I am in a hurry to dispatch. Braving the smoke, I rake the remaining unburned fuel into the hot center where it sits listlessly. The small pile seems to be waiting for an invitation to burn.

So I supply just such an invitation. My leaf blower comes out of the sled and springs to life. Its supercharges stream of air turns the bed of coals into a blazing forge. The coals become furious and through intense flames and heat that make short work of the remaining branches that threatened moment earlier to suffocate the those same coals.

A few minutes running around the edge of the fire with the leaf blower moves the mixture of snow, leaves and twigs at the margin out into the snowy barren reaches beyond. A wide patch of charcoal black mineral soil now separates the two worlds and provides a safe barrier for the remaining wood to finish consuming itself.

We pull back across the field and wipe off the snow from the bottom of the sled. It slides into the back of the Subaru as the last rays of sunlight fade.