Sunday, March 20, 2011

Discoveries after the Burn

It's been a good day - I've discovered a few things and, most importantly, learned something new.

I've been walking the burned area almost every day since we burned it, just open to whatever I might see. Here's what it looked like this morning....

You can see how quickly the grasses are coming up. It's only been 8 days since we burned and there was absolutely no green visible after the burn. You can also see last summer's path meandering through the burned area.

I mentioned a couple days ago that within a few days I was also able to see our paths from 2 summers ago, as well as the network of prairie vole trails. Here's a photo, taken while standing in the fire break, of last year's path (going off to the left from the firebreak) intercepted by the prior summer's path coming in from the right. If you look closely, you can see a fair number of prairie vole trails as well.

In the next photo, you can see a network of prairie vole trails and a mound that's greener than the surrounding area. That mound is the prairie vole colony itself. I believe that the mound is greener than the surrounding area because of extra nutrients brought up from the subsoil as the voles excavate their tunnels. Prairie vole "fertilization" in the area may play a role as well. Beyond the mound is another trace of our path from 2 summers ago.

As I walked our path a couple days ago, I found this prickly pear cactus immediately adjacent to the mowed area...yet I hadn't had a clue it was there until after the burn! That doesn't say good things about my observation skills, I guess, especially since I knew there was a prickly pear somewhere in the area - I'd seen it after our original burn.

Most interestingly, near two of the coyote digs I found wasp nest combs that can only be from yellowjacket colonies. The photo to the left shows a close-up of one of the charred combs; the one below shows the same comb in the bottom left corner and the colony it presumably was dug out of in the top right corner. So now I'm questioning whether the coyotes were digging for voles...or whether they were digging for yellowjacket nests. It's an interesting mystery to ponder (and do a bit of internet research on).

As I said, it's been an interesting and successful day already!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Four days after the burn. 1/10" rain on the evening of the second day.

Becker, Blue and I just got back from our morning walk. Now that some of the ash overlay has blown off or been watered in, I can see many more vole trails. I can even see our mowed paths from two years ago! It's almost a bit frightening how long and how easily the prairie remembers our influence....

I'm already seeing a few spikes of green grass pushing up. While it stirs my winter-tired, spring-hungry heart to see them, I'm trying to keep my joy within bounds - it's probably brome, a cool season, non-native grass, that I'm seeing!

The burn seems to have attracted two species of birds to it, in particular. I saw 5 or 6 flickers foraging, as well as several killdeer. Found a couple flicker breast feathers on the ground, too. I'm not sure what that was all about, as I saw no signs of a body nearby. Maybe a squabble over some particularly tasty tidbit two birds had found at the same time.

Mama bluebird had a beak-full of dried grasses, perched in the top of an osage orange, so they've found some sort of nesting site already. Which reminds me that I need to get the new nesting boxes up.

On a related note, as I walked through the draw with the boys, I saw both hawks sitting side by side in the big cottonwood in our neighbor's pasture. One is much spookier than the other and flew off almost as soon as I saw them, but the other stayed put through our entire walk. I think that may be the female, as it seems a little larger than the other one. I hope so. Any day now, I hope to see her sitting solidly in the nest, keeping eggs warm!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

After the Burn is Over, After the Flames are Gone....

(You can sing the title to the tune of "After the Dance Is Over, After the Music's Done....")

Sunday, the day after we did the burn in the back 5 acres, I took The Boys for a walk and looked it over a little more closely. It's always fun to see what's revealed after a fire....

For the past week or so, there's been an elusive deer skull taunting the dogs as we walked out back. I first saw it in the neighbor's field when Becker and Blue just HAD to go over there to inspect it. There was a companion leg associated with it, which was almost more fascinating to the dogs than the skull. Perhaps that because the skull was covered with soil and looked like it had been partially buried. Both looked pretty "ripe", like they'd been aged quite thoroughly.

The next day when we walked, the skull and leg were magically in OUR field, about 50' from where they'd been lying the day before. There they stayed for 2 more days, then magically they moved again. This time the skull went south and the leg went east, instead of staying together. My dogs faithfully found them each time they moved. (I'm attributing this "magic movement" to coyotes, of course.) I don't mind if my local coyotes want to munch on decayed deer flesh, but I'm really not too keen on my dogs doing so; therefore, this daily deer skull hunt had really begun to get on my nerves.

After the burn, the deer skull stood out boldly. The leg was much less visible. I'm curious to see what happens to them now that they've been "purified" by fire, so I'm continuing to just let them be.

Another sight that I always look forward to seeing after a fire are the prairie vole colonies and their associated runways.

I don't know why these fascinate me so much - maybe because it reminds me of playing with Matchbox cars during childhood! The little roads run from vole town to vole town and I can just imagine the self important little beasts scurrying back and forth, visiting their neighbors, gossiping about the good vegetation finds they've made recently.

This winter I've noticed fairly large holes turning up occasionally in the back 5. A couple have been as big as 18" X 12" and up to 12" deep.

At first I thought that some animal must be beginning to dig itself a burrow, but they never got deepened after the first time I saw them. Finally I decided it was coyotes (again), digging out the prairie vole colonies for a late night snack.

Boy, do those scars show up boldly against the burn. (The cell phone in the hole is to give you a sense of scale.)

Greg wants to fill in the coyote digs because he (correctly) notes that they will be real ankle-turners otherwise. While I know he's right, there's the curious part of me that wants to watch them and see how they change over the upcoming months and years. What's going to grow on the mounds of soil thrown up? Will the holes fill back in by themselves? Will they become used by some other animal in some other way? (Maybe I'll leave just one or two...and flag them, so we don't injure ourselves....)

Do I get upset about all of these disruptions to my slowly thickening grasses and wildflowers? Heck, no. The prairie vole colonies bring water and air down into the soil...and probably a fair amount of vegetation and fertilizer too. Other animals, from insects to other mammals to snakes, will utilize the vole tunnels for shelter. The coyote digs provide a small area of open soil for seeds to colonize, where new plants can gain a foothold. It's all part of the natural prairie cycle, and I love seeing it play itself out in my big back yard.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Burn, Baby, Burn!

Maintaining or restoring a prairie requires burning it periodically. Prairies evolved with fire, and nothing refreshes and nourishes a prairie like the occasional burn.

That said, it's been 3 years since we burned the back 5 acres, so we knew that it would be a good thing to burn at least part of it this spring. The first time we burned it, we burned the entire thing, but this time we wanted to leave part of it unburned to make sure that we left some of the insect life undisturbed. Prairies are mosaics of habitat; burning different areas during different years helps increase the diversity of plant and animal life within any given acreage.

Last time we burned, we didn't get the burn accomplished until early April. Some of the early wildflowers were up and blooming by that time, so the burn set them back for the year. In general, the later you burn in the spring, the more you will encourage the (warm season) grasses at the expense of wildflowers. Conversely, the earlier you burn, the more you will encourage wildflower growth. This time, I wanted to give the wildflowers the best start that I could, so we decided to burn as early as possible. That turned out to be yesterday.

Watching the weather obsessively all week, Saturday morning looked very promising for several reasons. The winds were supposed to average about 6 mph all day, with a little increase to 9 mph around noon. (Around here, for safety reasons, the powers-that-be require you to burn when the winds are between 5 and 15 mph - a potentially difficult window to hit in the perennially windy prairies.) The skies were due to be clear...and Greg would be home to lead the burn crew.

I was also able to find several Master Gardener friends willing to help us out: Sid, Ron, and Linda. Sid has burned his family land many times; Ron and Linda were new to the process but excited to learn about it, as they are restoring tall grasses to their property as well.

Greg and I prepared ahead of time. Greg had mowed the firebreaks several weeks ago. Early yesterday morning, we placed buckets of water with burlap sacks and towels scattered around the burn site, plus took out the rakes and flat shovels that we had gathered. Sid brought a sprayer for water, which we filled up and took with us, along with a couple other sprayers of our own. I highly recommend the sprayers!

By the time we had all gathered at 9 a.m., had a little caffeine and sugar fix from coffee and donuts, and then walked out to the back 5, the wind was steadily blowing at 11 mph with occasional gusts to 13 mph. Although the wind was pushing the upper limits of safety, the direction was perfect for this plot of ground, so we went ahead and started the burn. The photo above is of the section we chose to burn, right before we set the initial (backburn) fire.

To keep the fire under control, we set the backfire and slowly expanded it. (A backfire, for those who aren't familiar with burning, is a fire set at the edge of the burn parcel which is farthest from the direction the wind is blowing out of. This means that the fire has to burn against the wind to move, keeping it much slower and smaller than if it were moving with the wind. As the backfire burns, it creates a wider and wider firebreak along that edge.) With the wind shifting between the north, northeast and full east, we were very careful to backburn a large area before beginning to set the faster, scarier head fires that travel with the wind.

It was a challenge. I was SO glad that we had all 5 of us working, as the gusts were enough to push the fire into the closely mowed windbreaks and we had to stop those creeping flames before they crossed over into non-target areas. Once we got the backburn accomplished, though, it became much easier and faster. The second photo, above, shows the backfire, moving slowly against the wind. If you look really closely, you can see Sid to the left of the right-hand redcedar, keeping an eye on that edge of the burn. Overall, the burn took about 2 1/2 hours - slow, but a good, clean burn that did not cross the mowed firebreaks to make us test our backup firebreaks (the wheat field to the west and the overgrazed pasture to the south).

Here are 4 of the 5 prairie fire folks: Linda, Ron, Sid and Greg. We were tired and sooty but satisfied, with the grassland burned safely and well.

We're due to get rain tonight, then temperatures are predicted to be up into the 70's by the end of the week. I'm looking forward to a rapidly greening grassland and the first real chance to see if any of the overseeding that I've been doing is producing increased plant diversity.

Thanks again to Sid, Ron and Linda!!!