Sunday, April 27, 2008

"Emerging from the Burn", Or "Why I Need Aquatic Insect Eyes"

After almost a month (marked mainly by gray, chilly days), the prairie outback is finally starting to green up. As you can see from the photo, it's beginning to be hard to tell where the mowed path and firebreaks least from far away.

As the burned area greens up, I'm finally starting to see the leaves and shoots of wildflowers emerging. I recognize some of them: yarrow (that's easy), prairie coneflower or Ratibida columnifera, black-eyed Susan or Rudbeckia hirta. Others are total strangers to me, at least at this point in their growth cycle. And still others belong in the "I think I recognize this..." category.

The yarrow, Achillea millefolium, was definitely set back during the burn. I like yarrow, but there is enough out back that I'm not too worried about a temporary setback in its population. The plants in the mowed areas are starting to put up their flower shoots; I'm seeing a few basal leaves scattered here and there throughout the burned area. I'm curiously watching to see if the ones in the burned area gather enough strength to bloom this year, or if this year will be primarily one of rest and recuperation for them.

I've found one plant of fringed puccoon, Lithospermum incisum, out back in a mowed area around a redcedar. (This photo isn't of that specific plant, but it is a fringed puccoon in our yard, with a tube of lip gloss for scale.) The plant was blooming; that's the only way I found it. I did not see any fringed puccoon out in the back 5 acres last year, so I consider this a bit of a find. This, though, may be another of the early spring flowers that has been set back by the burn. I'm a little more concerned about this possibility than I am about the yarrow, but at least I have a pretty good population of it near the house, from which I can collect seed to scatter later this year, if necessary.

Clumps of prairie coneflower and black-eyed Susan are easy for me to recognize, and they are coming up in reasonable numbers. (The clump below is a prairie coneflower, coming up in the firebreak.) Both of these species are primarily confined to the southwest corner of the 5 acres, an area I had noted last year as having the most (positive) biodiversity. I identified both of those species when they bloomed last summer, so I'm not surprised to find them at all.

The most exciting find so far is the many shoots of Baptisia (wild indigo) that I think I see pushing up. These plants also seem to be primarily confined to the southwest corner. What makes this particularly interesting is that I hadn't seen any Baptisia out back all last summer. Not only is this a great prairie species, it's a nitrogen fixer too!

The last, and largest, group that I'm noticing are the "I haven't got a clue, but this looks interesting" group. I'm trying to mark samples of most of these so that I can learn which plants they are. Marking them will also hopefully keep us from running over them with the lawnmower when it comes time to cut paths again. The plant here to the right, also in the southwest portion of the mowed firebreak area, is a good example of one of these mystery plants.

As I try to notice what's happening in the prairie right now, I'm caught in an interesting dilemma: as I walk, where do I focus my eyes? If I watch for the emerging wildflower shoots underfoot, I miss both the wildflowers emerging off the path and the birds flying overhead. If I watch the birds, I step on the emerging wildflower shoots underfoot! I've about decided that I need aquatic insect eyes - you know, those divided eyes designed so the insect can see both above and below the water surface at the same time.

Speaking of birds, I haven't been seeing the flickers or the flocks of blackbirds/cowbirds and robins on the burned areas these days, like I did at first. I'm still seeing killdeer and eastern meadowlarks, though. Now I also often see a pair of barn swallows swooping to feed above the newly emerging vegetation, and I've noted a pair of scissor-tailed flycatchers decorating the fenceline and/or the tips of the cedars for several days. I'm sure the barn swallows must be setting up housekeeping under a nearby eave; I'm hoping that the scissor-tailed flycatchers find a suitable place to nest too.

1 comment:

Gaia Gardener: said...

What I thought was Baptisia (wild indigo) turned out to be wild alfalfa - also a good nitrogen fixer, but not as showy.

The last photo of the mystery plant was a newly emerging ladies' tresses!