Saturday, December 19, 2015

A Summer in the Woods: Part 1

This summer, I was fortunate to work with a passionate group of students from The Ohio State University on a long-term breeding bird project that aims to model bird populations over space and time in three Southeastern, Ohio state forests: Tar Hollow, Vinton Furnace, and Zaleski. As a plant ecologist, I was charged with the daunting - but exciting - task of learning the songs and calls of over 200 of Ohio's forest birds, enticed by the opportunity to conduct daily vegetation surveys. Although this internship only lasted three months, I filled my journal with enough memories for two posts; this post will focus on my duties and some of the ecological plant communities I came across, and my next post explains some of the biology I encountered walking from site to site.

Vinton Furncace State Experimental Forest (VFSEF) is a familiar place to me; I spent the summer of 2010 as a seasonal Forest Technician with the US Forest Service to conduct field work for research studies that assessed oak and hickory regeneration. The rich biodiversity, historic remnants and rural location are unforgettable, and offer a decent glimpse into pre-settlment Ohio. As part of the Northern Research Station, VFSEF has provided a sustainably managed ecological research breeding ground to the central hardwoods region for over sixty years, fostering seminole clear-cutting, prescribed burning, and oak regeneration research that have aided in best practices that the US Forest Service still use today.  This 12,000 acre forest is also home to the largest bobcat and timber rattlesnake populations in the state, not-to-mention the abundance of rare plants it harbors. 

For this research oppointment, my days began at 4:30am with a dark cup of joe and a quick gear check. My solo, moonlit morning travel to each site provided little excitement with highlights being NPR talk radio and the occasional whippoorwill fluttering away from my headlights. Upon reaching each access point, I broke out my GPS for a headlamp-weilding hike (up to 400m) through damp undergrowth, briars and spider webs to a pre-destined study point in the woods. Each plot greeted me with a loud and constant, melodic chorus of bird chatter reminiscent of a jungle scene.

For this project, the randomly generated study plots took me through meandering paths of rough terrain and varying habitats, each with associations of biological beings that no textbook could teach so well. Distinct habitats stick out like a sore thumb, and help connect the dots of taxonomy and life histories, to community associations and their respective environmental conditions. This post will focus on some of the forested plant communities I explored during this summer, which I classified using Anderson's (1982) classification system that Ohio Divsion of Natural Areas and Preserves (DNAP) uses today, in addition to NatureServe.

River Birch - Maple Floodplain Forest
The river birch - floodplain forest indicated here seems to be - in part - an artifact of past coal mining operations that blanketed Southeastern, Ohio. At this site, river birch (Betula nigra), black willow (Salix nigra), and box elder (Acer negundo) were most dominant, with sphagnum moss and bottonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) throughout. Unlike similar woodland floodplain forests in this region, B. nigra was one of the most dominant species in the overstory most likely due to the added acidity in the soils from Acid Mine Drainage (AMD). Some other species that exist here, and that are indicators of this community type, include American elm (Ulmus americana), tulip poplar (Liriodenron tulipifera), American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), black cherry (Prunus serotina), red maple (Acer rubrum), silver maple (Acer saccharinum), yellow buckeye (Aesculus flava), and white ash (Fraxinus americana).

Beech-Sugar Maple Forest

This site was on the border of being classified as a mixed mesophytic community, although there was a high abundance of American beech (Fagus americana) and sugar maple (A. saccharum) throughout most of this slope (not pictured) - more so than typical mixed mesophytic areas that I've encountered. Beech-Maple forest communities can be classified into three main community types: wet beech, beech-sugar maple, and mixed mesophytic. It becomes more difficult to distinguish communities in the unglaciated portion of the state due to increased landscape complexity from varying topography and substrates. Beatley (1959) noted that beech-maple forests in Vinton county are so similar to mixed mesophytic forests that separating them is not important. Common plants that I found, and that are indicators of this community type, include shagbark hickory (Carya ovata), black walnut (Juglans nigra), white oak (Quercus alba), red oak (Quercus rubra), U. americana, red elm (Ulmus rubra), American basswood (Tilia americana), and F. americana.

Mixed Mesophytic Forest

As mentioned above, a closely associated community to the beech-sugar maple forest community is the mixed mesophytic forest, which is common of north and east-facing slopes and coves. This community is so diverse because it provides conditions for hydric, mesic, and xeric species to interact. In Ohio, L. tulipifera and T. americana provide the best indicators of this community; specifically at this site, we found large A. flava and Q. rubra canopy trees with lush undergrowth. Other species that we found, and that are common to this community type, include Hickories (Carya spp.), A. saccharum, Q. alba, P. serotina, A. rubrum, and F. americana. 

Appalachian Oak Forest

This community differs from typical oak-hickory forests by composing of more than 20% of chestnut oak (Quercus prinus) and scarket oak (Quercus coccinea). This community is most often found on or near over-drained, acidic ridge tops exhibiting xeric conditions. In these specific areas, there are still small American chestnuts (Castanea dentata) growing from stump sprouts. This community differs from other similar communities by lacking A. saccharum and L. tulipifera. Due to the highly desired hardwood produced from this community type, there are no un-cut populations left in Ohio. The picture on the left provides an example of a ridgetop community whereas the picture on the left shows an east facing shoulder with an abundance of blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica) and sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum). Other associates found at these sites, and provide an indication of this community type, are pignut hickory (C. glabra), C. ovata, mockernut hickory (C. tomentosa), Q. alba, Q. coccinea, Q. rubrum, Q. velutina, and A. rubrum. 

Oak-Maple Forest
This site was the most beautiful and undisturbed representation of a true Oak-Maple forest that I've ever encountered. The 50+ DBH American basswood to the left, composition of over 20% sugar maples, white ash and a slough of sizable oak species immediately gave this site away. A community type of the north, oak-hickory forests of this quality only occur in pockets of unglaciated Ohio. Clifton Gorge and Caesar Creek Nature preserves offer good examples of this community. Other species that we found here, and that represent this community type, include bitternut hickory (C. cordiformis), C. glabra, C. ovata, Q. alba, Q. coccinea, Q. prinus, Q. rubra, Q. muehlenbergii, U. rubra, and A. rubrum. 

Oak-Pine Forest
Although the picture on the right represents a red pine (Pinus resinosa) plantation, the picture on the left provides an example of a possible Oak-Pine forest as indicated in Anderson's (1982) classification with more than 20% of the overstory consisting of shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata); however, it is probably a plantation as well. Regardless, VFSEF provides some rather healthy, albeit sparse, examples of Oak-Pine forests represented primarily of pitch pines (Pinus rigida) that are restricted to exposed xeric upland sites. In the above P. echinata site, coniferous forest associates are present such as Lycopodia spp. In addition, an interspersion of oak and hickory species was also found, which further exemplifies what an oak-pine forest should look like.

Disturbed Sites

Zaleski, Tar Hollow, and Vinton Furnace State Forests provide some of the largest unbroken tracts of woodlands in Ohio, and are invaluable to the biological diversity of plants and animals that find refuge there. Although, as state forests, they are susceptible to some level of deforestation to supplement Ohio's multi-billion dollar timber products industry. As a result, various forestry practices such as select and clear-cutting still take place, albeit, using more sustainable best practices - many of which have been refined through research conducted throughout these very forests over the years, especially VFSEF. Thus, these internship experiences have not only offered me a look at the diverse biology and ecology of southeastern, Ohio, but also examples of a successful sustainable forest management plan to enhance the environment, economy, and society. 

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