Sunday, 17 May 2020

Woodland Looking Like a Wreck

Image of oriole and indigo bunting at backyard feeder

The newly open squirrel farm feeding station attracts the most brilliantly colored woodland birds around.

For the Birds

This week saw an explosion of spring flowers and activity across the squirrel farm. We hung the bird feeders as soon as we moved in a month ago but resisted the urge to fill them right away. We did not want the local wildlife to become dependent on handouts. Nearly every day, however, we saw bird arriving for the spring and checking out the empty feeders with obvious disappointment. This week we relented after neighbors told of the beautiful birds that frequently their backyards.

The response to our offerings was immediate and overwhelming. Unlike the house sparrows and chickadees that dominated our yard in Madison, visitors to the squirrel farm feeders include bluebirds, nuthatches, orioles, gold finches, rose breasted grosbeaks, downy woodpeckers, wood thrush, and hummingbirds. The brilliant colors of these beautiful birds remind me of a tropical zoo display more than any backyard I have ever known.The surrounding woods pay host to cardinals, bluejays, wrens, warblers, red winged blackbirds, red tail hawks and pileated woodpeckers.

Disaster Zone

On the other hand, the squirrel farm woodland is now officially a wreck. Shortly after moving in, I began cutting down buckthorn and treating the stumps with Garlon 4 to keep them from re-sprouting. At first, I looked for fairly open spots and began stacking the brush into compact piles for burning later. Trees begin to push sap up into trunk and out to branches as the days lengthen and weather warms. That upwelling of sap prevents herbicide from moving down into the roots where it does its damage.

So, once sap began to flow my tactics had to change, as well. Instead of killing the trees, my aim switched to preventing them from making seed. Instead of cutting trunks off neatly at the ground and treating the stumps, I started lopping trunks off around waist height and leaving them untreated. Though the tree remained alive, without branches, it could not flower and produce seed. Of course, that choice means I must return in late summer and cut those trunks and treat the stumps to kill the trees. But removing the tops prevents millions of seeds from entering the seed bank to plague the woodland for decades to come.

One retired guy working part time to clear five acres of buckthorn thicket in less than a month meant that all those tops were left where the dropped. The result is a woodland that resembles a battlefield. For the next couple months, it will be just me and the ticks turning that chaos into a scattering of well organized brush piles.

Image of forget me not flowers

These stunning blue flowers are quickly becoming the scourge of the north woods.

But wait, there’s more

Adding to my manmade disaster is that of invasive garlic mustard. The squirrel farm sports more than a half acre of dense stands along with scattered patches and pioneering individual plants. I filled a large construction bag of the plants each of the past three weeks. Most of the outlying individuals and small patches are removed and will not make seed in 2020. The large patches along the small ravine remain. With luck I will remove all or nearly all of them before the seed pods burst a month from now.

Joining the garlic mustard is another invasive plant more common in north country woodlands, the forget-me-not. With lovely little blue flowers, these common garden plants overrun woodlands, especially along river banks and other sunlit edges. The Baraboo hills are at the southern edge of the tension zone between northern woodland and sand country and the prairie and savanna plant communities that dominate the southern third of Wisconsin. Life in the tension zone means having the diversity of both native and invasive species. The infestation is currently confined to a 1,000 square foot area of woodland east of the road and south of the driveway. My challenge is to clear this patch in the next three days. Rain and warm weather will soon make the woodlands mosquito hell, so time is not on my side.

On the Up-Side

The squirrel farm is much more than a neglected woodland thicket. More amazing spring ephemeral wildflowers made their appearance this week. Yellow forest violets brightened the forest floor. Alternate-leaved dogwood, also called pagoda dogwood trees unfurled their leaves. Seedlings around their bases ensure that lovely mid-story trees will supply us with gorgeous flowers, while their dark purple berries will help woodland birds feed their young throughout the summer.

The oak seedlings and round saplings scattered across the property offer promise, hoping to compete with their more aggressive neighbors like cherry, walnut, locust and boxelder. It will up to me to place my thumb on the scale of the oaks, until there is enough surface fuel to begin prescribed burning in a few years. Once fire turns to the squirrel farm, the fire tolerant oaks and hickories will regain their dominance and those shade tolerant species like maples will retreat.

Mushrooms!

This week also brought our first morel mushroom harvest. First to arrive this week are the half-free morels. Neighbors claim the squirrel farm is a bountiful store of morels, the rains and warm weather we are getting this week make us truly hopeful.

 

 

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.