Monday, August 18, 2014

Bush Cicada: A 2+" Sign That I'm On the Right Track

According to the reading I've done, restoring prairie is very much an art.  In fact, it's as much or more of an art than it is a science.  For example, the steps you should take depend, first of all, on whether you are starting with a plowed field or an overgrazed pasture.  Even with that determined, the process is highly experimental.  After all, for over a century we've been far more concerned with breaking up prairie lands, to plant crops, than we've been concerned with restoring agricultural lands to prairie.

It's almost always easier to destroy something than it is to create it...or to re-create it.

Therefore, even the very first step of restoration was in doubt when I decided I wanted to try to return tallgrass prairie to our 10 acre "homestead", with its 5 acres of overgrazed pasture.  Should I plow up the existing vegetation and/or use Roundup to kill it all off before planting prairie seeds?  The seed I used would supposedly establish more readily that way.  Or should I try to overseed into the existing vegetation? 

I didn't see a lot of vegetation that was worth saving during that first summer we lived here.  The Back Five was filled with redcedars, western ragweed, Baldwin's ironweed, poverty grass, brome, green antelopehorn, and a little bit of yarrow - hardly an inspiring mix.  My instincts, however, told me that plowing it all up or applying Roundup would set the return of the prairie back a lot.

"Following my gut" (to quote Gibbs on NCIS), I started the next year with a spring burn.  I reasoned that it wouldn't hurt and it might help me see if there were other, more desirable, plants being hidden by their assertive neighbors.  It took us two tries, but we did get the Back Five burned that second spring.  Over the summer I watched it carefully to see what showed up.  Fresh growth took several weeks to begin emerging, as that spring turned out to be cold and dry, but eventually the temperatures started to rise and the rains to fall.

What a difference a burn makes!  Oh, there was still a lot of "garbage" vegetation, but I also found white prairie clover, a couple lead plants, wild alfalfa, dotted gayfeather, and (best of all) FIVE spring ladies' tresses.  There was no way that I was going to plow up or Roundup that 5 acres!

So I decided to overseed.  Over the last 5 years, I've scattered seed, usually in the mowed trails, and I've watched for more hidden gems to emerge from the seed bank in the soil.  As with most natural systems, progress has seemed slow.  Prairie plants put down roots first, significant leaves next, and flowers - the most visible sign that a plant has established - last of all.  It can takes years before a newly establishing perennial or grass plant blooms, which means that it can take years before you know that your seeding has been successful.  Overseeding is especially slow, since far fewer of the seeds will be able to outcompete the already established plants on the site.  Severe heat and drought over the last several years have further impeded any progress.  Finally, though, I feel like the prairie is beginning to peek out through the overgrazed pasture it's been hiding under....

The poverty grass has become a much smaller component of the flora in the last 7 years.  Whereas it used to be impossible to walk through the Back Five without getting many of its painful seeds in my socks, these days I have to search the area for a while to find any obvious stands of it.

There are swaths of tall dropseed now and well established patches of side-oats grama.   The dotted gayfeather has spread from a scant dozen plants in one, well confined area to dozens of plants, scattered in several large, beautiful patches throughout the Back Five.  Whorled milkweed has started to form graceful colonies from single plants that were easy to overlook at first.

Meadowlarks nest each summer.  I've seen a jackrabbit several times, and coyotes regularly leave signs that they, too, are enjoying the area.

Compass plants have shown up, as well.  While I scattered some seed four or five years ago, several of the first plants that I noticed, a year or two later, were already large enough that I suspect they were actually holdovers which had survived the many years of pasturage.   Now there are a couple dozen compass plants;  6 of them put up flower spikes this year.

Which leads me to my latest promising sign of the return of the tallgrass prairie.  Last Thursday, on my latest walkabout, I photographed, among many other plants and animals, a large cicada making itself at home on the compass plant flower stalk above.  Large cicadas aren't unusual around here, so I almost didn't take this individual's photo, but having one so nicely posed on the compass plant stalk was a little different, so I spent the few extra electrons and minutes to record the image.

Over the weekend, I edited my photos and decided, somewhat on a whim, to send this image in to Bug Guide to see which cicada species this individual actually represented.  Some insects I seem to be able to identify without too much trouble.  Others, like cicadas, I have yet to learn enough about to reliably name.  Every other large cicada image I've sent in to Bug Guide has turned out to be Tibicen auriferus, the Plains Dog-Day Cicada, in one color variant or another.  This one didn't look like that, but I'd been fooled before.

This morning I received my answer from the Entomology Gods:  my large cicada is a Bush Cicada, Tibicen dorsatus

Why am I doing a happy dance?  Why does it matter to me which species of cicada this is?

Well, I'm probably over-reacting here, but on the Bug Guide information page about the Bush Cicada, it states, "A beautiful species that now exists in scattered isolates across much of its former range. Although listed as "secure" (i.e. "not threatened/endangered"), many populations, particularly those isolated in more developed areas, should be monitored and conserved."  I take that to mean that the species is on the decline, overall, and my little 5 acres of restoring prairie may be helping it to maintain a slightly healthier population.

Helping a potentially declining species to retain a healthier population is one of the big reasons why I garden, and definitely why I garden the way I do.   In a nutshell.  Or in a cicada cast, as the case may be.

Oh, my Bush Cicada?  Another common name for it is Splendid Prairie Cicada...and I think that's a perfectly splendid name.


Anonymous said...

nice story. I hope to have some time this winter to read through the older posts on your blog, you have such a nice way with words and I want to hear more about the "early days" haha.
I'm glad you didn't go with the plowing and roundup, it's beyond me how anyone can recommend that for an area which has any last bit of hope.
Glad to hear your hard work is paying off so well :)

Gaia Gardener: said...

Frank, thanks for stopping by. I don't think I could have brought myself to either Roundup or plow up the pasture, despite the advice to do so. It just seemed too much like cutting off my nose to spite my face.

Gardener on Sherlock Street said...

You've made the oasis so the cicada came. :-) So different doing a prairie than a typical garden bed. Kind of like tossing a lot out there and seeing what sticks.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Yes, GonSS, it is somewhat like that - or very much like that, depending on how you want to look at it. I try to screen what I "toss out there" pretty carefully, though, so I don't introduce problems and so that the site moves towards a healthier ecosystem overall.