Friday, July 27, 2012

Goats in the Woods - A Update

Three of "the girls"
Since I'd only been getting anecdotal reports over the last few months on our four goats' efforts to control invasive plants, I asked my stewardship staff to join me in the field yesterday to review progress first-hand.
The staff has created a portable electrified enclosure that they have been moving around in a dense, overgrown thicket.  The staff members have found that the goats like the herbaceous portions of woody plants, but they won't eat fibrous stems.  So, they'll strip the leaves and tender stems from porcelain-berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata), multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), shrub & Japanese honeysuckles (Lonicera spp.), Asian bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), and privet (Ligustrum spp.).  They clear the patches to the ground, but leave the woody stems standing.  The staff has decided that the way to proceed is then manually to remove the stripped woody stems, either by uprooting them or by cutting the stems and painting herbicide on the cut stumps.
Foreground cleared by the goats last week
Some of the shaded patches that the goats cleared earliest (about two months ago) and which the staff members did not subsequently address by hand have begun to resprout.  It would be feasible to return the goats to those patches again, but so far the regrowth has been very modest and would provide very little food, so the fenced enclosure would have to be moved almost daily - a pain in the neck.  Instead, the staff will go back and address the regrowth by hand.
Cleared patch on the right originally looked like the uncleared thicket on the left
There are some gaps without tree cover in the thicket.  These sunny patches have been overwhelmed by porcelain-berry.  While this plant is among the goats' favorites, the plant can recover from browsing quickly when it's growing in the sun.  The patches cleared by the goats are now lushly green again.  We've decided to move the goats back to these patches, let them clear the porcelain-berry for a second time to expose the soil surface (and hidden obstacles like rocks and tree trunks), and then to mow the patches to control the porcelain-berry until we have a chance to plant trees this autumn.
Stewardship Assistant and goatherd Gary (right) estimating the height of the vegetation before the goats cleared this sunny gap; unfortunately, the porcelain-berry has re-surged in this sunny opening.
My overall assessment after a few months' experience?  First, simply managing the goats is a lot of work for the staff because the goats have to be herded out to the thicket each morning and then returned to their overnight pen in the evening.  Furthermore, the portable enclosure needs to be moved frequently.  And, personally, I'm disappointed that the goats largely ignore the woody stems; they won't even girdle (let alone eat) the huge Asian bittersweet and porcelain-berry vines (though, surprisingly, they have girdled some of the younger cherry trees growing in the thicket).  I'll let this experiment go on for a while, but the staff would like to enlarge the herd to make it more cost-effective; right now, I just don't see that happening.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Colorado Rocky Mountain High - and Dry

Kali enjoying an all-natural Sno-Cone at Ouzel Lake
For our last natural excursion in Colorado in June, we elected to explore the Wild Basin area in the extreme southeast corner of Rocky Mountain National Park.  In making our decision about where to explore, we considered that we'd been to the spectacular alpine meadows on the Continental Divide in the park previously, and the road to the Bear Lake section of the park (which we had also visited on our last trip) was being reconstructed and we were warned that traffic there was horrendous.  In addition, because there's easy access by road, the alpine meadows and Bear Lake sections of the park are extremely popular.  So we opted for Wild Basin, accessible only by foot or horse.
A group of seniors botanizing at the beginning of the Wild Basin Trail 

There's a hummingbird moth sipping nectar from the flowers in the right third of this image
 Wild Basin is drained by North St. Vrain Creek (I love that name).  The first stopping place along the trail is Copeland Falls where the creek plunges over two cataracts, the Upper and Lower Falls, the Upper of which is the more spectacular of the two.
Upper Copeland Falls on N. St. Vrain Creek
N. St. Vrain Creek canyon above Copeland Falls
A horsetail glen in a low spot along the Wild Basin Trail
The first two miles or so of the Wild Basin Trail are heavily traveled because the walk is only moderately difficult, there are three scenic waterfalls, and the distance makes for a good out-and-back day hike.  About one mile into the trip, I came across the plant whose image appears below.  It was growing from a crack between two stone steps that the National Park Service had placed along the trail to make the going a bit easier.  Dozens, if not hundreds of people walk this trail every day, yet here was this plant growing literally underfoot.  I was sure it was a member of the weird Broom-rape family since it had no leaves or chlorophyll and had the typical "fleshy" appearance of many of the broom-rapes.  Eventually, I caught up with one of the senior citizen botanist-hikers and asked her if she had noticed the plant.  While she hadn't seen it, when I described the plant to her she corrected me and told me that it was an orchid. 
An orchid growing in the trail
Tight grip in a tough spot
Midway along the popular part of the Wild Basin Trail, Cony Creek joins N. St. Vrain Creek by plunging over the Calypso Cascades.
Calypso Cascades on Cony Creek
Trail bridge over Cony Creek at the base of the cascades
Most visitors hike two miles to Ouzel Falls on Ouzel Creek, and then turn around and retrace their steps back to the trailhead.  That had been Kali's and my intention as well.  But one of the botanizing seniors told us that there was a great view of Wild Basin and good spot for lunch a few hundred feet further along the trail, so we followed her to a scenic overlook.
Ouzel Falls on Ouzel Creek
Kali (right) and one of the botanizing seniors surveying Wild Basin.  This view is eastward.
As we ate our our lunch, a young woman came by, returning from a hike to Ouzel Lake located three miles higher up in the basin.  Since it was still relatively early, we felt pretty strong, and we didn't have any other obligations, we decided to give it a go, too.

Unfortunately, from the high point vista overlooking the basin, the trail then descended a few hundred feet, then began to ascend again to regain the lost elevation.  The ascent was short and steep, and Kali very nearly declared the extension to be a mistake.  But, she persevered and we finally climbed up onto a ridge where walking was easy.  The forest on the ridge had burned years ago, so the trail was exposed and hot.
Kali on the Ouzel lake Trail, hiking through an old burn

Ouzel Lake, with Copeland Mountain (13,176 ft.) in the background
Ouzel Creek at the outlet from Ouzel Lake
Because we had crossed so much open ground under cloudless skies during the hike, we were really thirsty when we finally reached Ouzel Lake.  (We'd only brought enough water to hike comfortably to Ouzel Falls.)  So, we decided to dig into some of the winter snowdrifts that remained around the edge of the lake and enjoy natural "Sno-Cones."  We're really glad we did, since they cooled and re-hydrated us.
Returning from Ouzel Lake, which is located amid the dense conifer forest in the background
 While most of the Ouzel Lake Trail was high and very dry, when the trail dipped into shallow valleys and ravines, the snowmelt and small rivulets supported lush stands of wildflowers. 

Asters and lichens
A species of Polemonium (Jacob's Ladder), long since done flowering in the East

This was the final - and best - hike of our Western trip.  This beautiful hike was the clincher in our decision to retire to Colorado and the Rocky Mountains in a few years.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Avian Action

Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus)  (Image from USDA-NRCS website) 
 On Sunday afternoon (July 22), a couple came up to me and told me excitedly that they had just come back from a walk on our native grassland where they had seen a bird that they had never seen before.  They described the bird to me, and it sounded like they were describing a Bobolink, one of the meadow-nesting birds we have been trying to attract to our grasslands for the last 10 years.  We consulted a field guide, and the hikers confirmed that they had seen at least two - and maybe more - pairs of Bobolinks in the fields.

Boy, did I get excited, too!  Bobolinks stop in the grassland for a week or so on their migration northward in May, and we often see them in September and October as they head back south, but we've never been able to manage to "convince" them to breed in our grasslands.  Surely, birds in the fields in mid-July have been here, breeding but unobserved, all summer.

Just by chance, one of our premier birders happened by a few minutes later and I shared the news with him.  He was excited, too, and said that he was going to go out to search the fields for the birds, but he also had some discouraging news.  He said that other birders in our area had been seeing migrants beginning to "mosey" back south already, and that some of those early migrants were Bobolinks.  Alas, I'm afraid that we just have a few members of the avant garde in our fields, too.  Maybe next year...
Wild Turkey hens and chicks (Meleagris gallopavo)

Yesterday morning, as I was washing up the breakfast dishes, three hen turkeys ambled up outside the kitchen window accompanied by some skittish chicks.  The turkeys have had a hard time this year with a surfeit of foxes, coyotes, and Cooper's Hawks in the preserve.  But, somehow, these three hens, which have now gathered themselves and their offspring into a small flock, have managed to protect and raise 11 chicks to the point where they are much less vulnerable to predators.  We've seen lots of hens with no chicks this year, probably because their nests were raided and destroyed, so it was really good to see this group.

Naturally, I offered them some food: black oil sunflower for the hens, and millet for the chicks.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Built Environment

On Wednesday evening, a friend of ours who is a Realtor invited us to a high-end open house at a local architectural treasure - the Fisher-Kahn house.  Located on a quiet residential street in a distinctly middle-class community, you would more likely expect to find the house nestled among the mansions of Philadelphia's wooded and very private Main Line neighborhood.

Beginning in 1964, Norman and Doris Fisher and architect Louis I. Kahn collaborated to design and build a single-family residence on three acres along "my" creek upstream of the preserve.  The house sits just upslope of the floodplain, but the property also extends across the creek into a small woodland on the opposite bank that is accessible by a wooden bridge also designed by Kahn.  The house is clad with tidewater cypress set above a foundation of local stone.
The house is comprised of two "cubes" set at a 45 degree angle from one another, separating the living, dining and kitchen areas from the bedrooms and baths.  The house is a residential example of the ordering principles that are a hallmark of Kahn's larger and better-known institutional projects.
Dr. Fisher died about a decade ago, but Doris continued to live in the house until 2010.  That year, she moved to Annapolis, Maryland, with her daughter and son-in-law, and donated the property to the National Trust for Historic Preservation (the Trust).  The Trust is selling the property, but because the house retains a very high degree of architectural integrity, it is placing a preservation easement on the property in order to ensure the protection of its architectural values.

Kali and I could never afford the property (the Trust is asking in the high $400,000s), and we're not sure we'd want to live in a "museum" anyway.  Nevertheless, it was a treat to visit the house, which we had toured once before years ago when the Fishers owned it.  Besides, one of the conditions of the preservation easement is that the new owners allow public access at least once a year, so we'll still be able to get a periodic architectural "fix."

Thursday, July 19, 2012

One Trail Tweleve Times - July

Blackberries (Rubus spp.) - sweet, tangy and seedy
To "mix it up" a bit, I scheduled July's One Trail Twelve Times walk on a Tuesday evening (instead of a Sunday afternoon).  Furthermore, I led the small group in reverse of the direction I have been following up to this point.  I chose the evening in order to straddle the natural world at twilight, and my timing was perfect.  As we set out, the cicadas strummed in the trees and wood thrushes fluted in the forest.  As we were nearing the end of the trail, the woodland avian chorus fell silent, lightning bugs began to rise from the meadows, and the katydid chorus replaced the cicada serenade.

I had three intelligent, interested, attuned folks join me.  We quickly dubbed ourselves the Four Musketeers, since all four of us had first names that began with J (well, my middle name begins with J).

This month, all the action's in the meadow along the Beech Springs Trail.  The woodland tree canopy, summer-dense, combined with the unbroken spicebush layer (Lindera benzoin), casts deep shade on the forest floor.  The spring ephemerals are gone, and only a few first-year garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) plants hang-on in the gloom.

Out in the meadow, though, growth is luxuriant.  The trail enters the meadow at the top of the hill, so the first plants we encountered were adapted to drier conditions.
A field of goldenrod (Solidago spp.), blooming well ahead of "schedule"
Joan capturing an image of early-blooming goldenrod
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)
Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia serotina) and Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Black-eyed Susans
Ripening seed pods have replaced the globular purple flowers of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) so abundant last month
Grape vines (Vitis spp.) sprawl over vegetation throughout the meadow
The delicate flower spike of Small-flowered Agrimony (Agrimonia parviflora), a plant whose leaves vaguely resemble those of marijuana (so I've been told)
Short-toothed Mountain Mind (Pycnanthemum muticum), a species with rather broad leaves.  Virginia Mountain Mint  (P. virginianum), which has narrow, needle-like leaves, also grows in the meadows. 
The Mountain Mints had us perplexed.  The flowers looked nearly identical, but we were presented with plants with distinctly different foliage, which left us scratching our heads trying to make an identification in the field.  Finally, we realized we were dealing with two different species.
A first appearance for Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota)
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), a denizen of the driest meadows
As the trail threaded through the fields, we gradually moved downhill.  Species adapted to dry conditions gave way to the distinctive plants of the wet meadow.

Eastern Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium dubium)
A closer view of Joe-Pye Weed's delicate flower

New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) just coming into bloom

We found just one Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).  This species always seems to be bedeviled by aphids.
Joan, Judy and Jim on the Eagle Scout Bridge
Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), fringing one of the Beech Spring runs, becomes less evident with each passing month
The gathering dark in the forest
The setting sun's nearly horizontal rays illuminated the woods