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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Autumn Experiences

Since I haven't submitted a new post in a while due to school commitments, I will start off this academic year with an assortment of some of my most memorable experiences of this fall. Each topic will be symbolized by a pair of corresponding photos.
A long-awaited endeavor with Andrew Gibson proved to be well worth the wait as he and I immersed ourselves in some of Ohio's richest, prized, and threatened ecosystems and nature preserves: Gallagher fen, Prairie Road fen, Davey Woods old-growth forest, and Pearl King oak savannah. Above are pictures of our first historical find of the day - the county record of northern slender lady's tresses (Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis) in Madison county and chinkapin oak (Quercus muehlenbergii) of Davey Woods old-growth forest.

During the same day, Andrew spotted yet another county record for Clark county, October lady's tresses (Spiranthes ovalis), while hiking out of one of the prettiest places I've seen while being in Ohio - Gallagher fen. Many other rarities and memories were found that day.

Weeks later, we decided to check out some of Andrew's stomping grounds. It's no wonder why he is so passionate about botany and Ohio's natural history. I learned about the unique geological properties that make places like the Edge of Appalachia thrive with such diversity and nostalgia. Above are pictures of a long awaited autumn bloomer of mine - Great plains lady's tresses (Spiranthes magnicamporum) - and a picturesque remnant Adam's county prairie with a very large dwarf hackberry (Celtis tenuifolia) on the left edge of the photo. 

While in Adam's county, we decided to check out "the little smokies," which has also been on my list for a long time. That day, we found at least six state and/or federally endangered of threatened plants in bloom, including the above striped gentian (Gentiana villosa) and creeping aster (Eurybia surculosa), which is extremely rare even in it's limited native range of the smoky mountains.

With a head full of amazing memories from Ohio, I decided to go south to see a new place. I spent one night camping in KY's Daniel Boone National Forest's Red River Gorge Geological Area. Above are two photos of the sunrise from my campsite. I love the acidic, well-drained ecosystems of ridge tops. I had a taste of eastern teaberry but would love to go back when blueberries and huckleberries are in their prime!

Most recently, I embarked on another overnight expedition into Monengahela National Forest's Dolly Sods, WV right in time for peak foliage. I saw striped maples and red elderberry as well as beautiful views of the Allegheny Mountains atop bear rocks. I've never seen an oak so vibrant, have you?

Friday, September 9, 2011

Botanical Discoveries

As a child, I always dreamed of being a pioneer. I naively questioned whether there is anything left to discover in this beautiful country. In North Dakota, one of the very first plants I found while walking the nostalgic open prairies was the Nuttall's violet (Viola nuttalli). A lance leaved violet, Nuttall's violet was discovered and named after a famous botanist and pioneer, Thomas Nuttall, who traveled throughout many of the same places I have been, such as the midwest and great plains states. For some reason, he inspired me to scrutinize new and odd plants much more closely.

Weeks later, I volunteered to do an annual lady's slipper orchid survey throughout some of Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge's most rich and untouched lands. One site yielded thousands of lady's slippers including three species - Cypripedium candidum, Cypripedium parviflorum var. makasin, and a brand new species to that county - Cypripedium x andrewsii, which I found. Refer to my previous post on this topic here. Nuttall traveled many of the same areas that Lewis and Clark had; though, they lost many of their specimens. Like Nuttall, it feels exciting to find species that my predecessors overlooked and to be a pioneer in a sense.

On August 31st, my good friend Andrew Gibson The Natural Treasures of Ohio and I set out to do some botanizing around his neck of the woods - Clark and Madison counties, Ohio. He has been excited to show me some of Ohio's fens and remnant prairies for a while now and I was more than excited for the opportunity to tag along - so excited that I only got three hours of sleep the night before! Some areas that we tackled include Prairie Road fen, Gallagher Fen, Pearl King Oak Savannah, and Davey Old-Growth Woods. I knew I'd be hiking around in two counties with well-preserved natural areas but what I didn't know was that I'd be leaving having been a part of history in both counties. Every trip has a goal and our goal was to get me one common Spiranthes spp. under my belt. In addition, I left having been a part of the discovery of two new county records - Spiranthes ovalis in Clark county and Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis in Madison county. On top of that, I was the very first to snap pictures of these beauties. Such an amazing experience that I will never forget!

Though I never set out to find a rare plant or discovery, it is exhilarating to be part of such unique experiences. They have opened my eyes to botany and have certainly inspired me to take a closer look at  the forest floor, prairies, and fens I hike through.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Intensive Grazing Study

The further I've gone west (from Massachusetts), the opportunity and level of experience has greatly increased. As a Biological Science Technician with the USFWS, I had the opportunity to volunteer for many events and projects that interested me. In preperation to lead the Native Prairie Adaptive Management project on Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge, I was required to travel down to the small town of Streeter ND to participate in a vegetation identification workshop guided by Bob Patterson of the North Dakota State University Research Extension Center. On our way out into the field, Bob was kind enough to catch me up on his grazing study that has been going on for some 20 years. Weeks later, I was able to be contracted in to help gather data.

The study involves using two separate half-meter sq. plots - one "in" plot and two "out" plots per unit. The in plot was placed in an exclosure that keeps cattle from grazing it whereas the out plots were randomely placed in the grazed portion.

The protocol was designed to measure biomass of shrubs, forbs, and grasses.

This was my plot after picking the shrub layer and placing the contents into an individual paper bag. All species were identified and written on each bag for species richness data.

After all layers were picked and separated, this is what a plot looks like (left). All plants were harvested from the root collar up. An "in" plot has a barrier to deter cattle from grazing it (right).

Over all, the study was very interesting. I've seen deer exclosures throughout the Vinton Furnace State Experimental Forest and the large contrast between foraged and unforaged woodlots. This study had a very similar result throughout ND range. My passion is vegetation but I always like to study flora and fauna together. Studies like these really help to manage for both.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Native Prairie Adaptive Management

As cool and warm season grasses become identifiable in the next week, I'll be setting out to lead the project that I've trained weeks for - Native Prairie Adaptive Management (NPAM). This study utilizes the use of belt transects throughout various areas of the wildlife refuge. Each unit has been managed using grassland management practices: burn, rest, chemical application, native plantings, grazing etc. The objective of NPAM is to collect data, which will be entered into software that suggests further management practices based on the present floristic composition. The idea is to revert back to native prairie habitat in the future based on the suggested management practices.

Unfortunately, it will take years of data and management for this project to work as the advance of smooth brome and Kentucky bluegrass has become so severe. Luckily, these two invasives prefer mesic - wet conditions and are limited on rocky, unplowed hilltops. It's interesting to see the color, structure, and height change of vegetation as you drive by these hill tops. Even the slightest hills are dotted with rocks, bright summer wildflowers, and dried little bluestem from the previous year, giving off a snow capped look.

It brings me great satisfaction that at least a small part of the prairie has been retained for me to see. It gives me a sense of optimism and a goal to obtain. The hilltop above is a great example of healthy prairie. If you look close enough, there are prairie lilies, blanket flower, echinacea, white milkwort, indian breadroot, porcupine grass, needle-and-thread, hooker's oaks, little bluestem, prairie junegrass, western wheatgrass, black-eyed susans, yellow coneflower, ball cacti, among others. I believe the two invasives we are fighting the most in our prairies are well-determined, but controllable through intensive management. Kentucky Bluegrass is the most difficult to control as it is a graze increaser and produces it's own microclimate by dropping an abundance of duff, creating shade for itself. Shade is obviously undesirable for prairie plants.
The needle-and-thread forms lush blankets with a beautiful mix of native forbs. Many sages grow here in the mixed grass prairie among other native forbs and grasses. Harriers fly low to the ground and badger holes are everywhere. Franklin's ground squirrels and thirteen-lined ground squirrels are abundant. Swainson's, Krider's redtail, and ferruginous hawks soar above the landscape as bald eagles often greet me on the way into work in the morning. With such a mesmerizing goal ahead, it seems that any obstacle is worth the effort.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Prairie Fireworks

With summertime comes a whole new cast of showy plants to emerge among the culms of cold season grasses. The bright yellows and reds dot the endless horizon as far as the eye can see, giving off a grand finale of color right in time for the Fourth. 

Scarlet globe mallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea) and candle anemone (Anemone cylindrica)

Silver scurf pea (Psoralea esculenta) and wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum)

Western snowberry (Symphoricarpos occidentalis) and scarlet gaura (Gaura coccinea)

Buffalo ground plum (Astragalus crassicarpus) and blanket flower (Gaillardia aristata)

Lilac penstemon (Penstemon gracilis) and harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

North Dakota Plants

A perfect balance of sun and breeze found its way into my room this morning to wake me up. The bright warm rays were the kind that promised a perfect day, and it was. On a normal day, there seems to be less plant diversity. But when the sun finally shows itself, the prairies open up and fill with life. Even so, though, it takes a well-trained eye to pick out the gems within the dense grasses. 

 Goat's beard (Tragopogon dubius) and red baneberry (Actaea rubra) beginning to fruit. Goat's beard is a common aster that turns its head towards the sun. The flower opens only when the sun is out and closes by mid day. 

 A brand new violet for me, western Canada violet (Viola canadensis var. rugulosa). This species differs from its Canada violet (Viola canadensis) by having much larger leaves that come to a pinched point. The larger leaves creep below the soil and emerge inches from the plant, which is different than V. canadensis.

 Roundleaf serviceberry (Amelanchier sanguina). Serviceberries are known to be challenging to separate, though, this one stuck out to me like a sore thumb. The leaves have a dull serrate look to them and the tips are obtuse, giving the leaf an overall round look. 

 Bellflower (Campanula rotundifolia) and yellow sundrops (Calylophus serrulatus). In Ohio, the harebell is endangered, though, I was lucky enough to see patches along the Ohio islands when I worked at Middle Bass Island State Park. Yellow sundrops are not found in Ohio.

 Green sage or terragon (Artemisia dracunculus) and fringed sage (Artemisia frigida). Sages are an important community in the west but have spred dramatically through overgrazing. The epithet of fringed sage, frigida, refers to it occupying cold regions.

White penstemon (Penstemon albidus) and indian breadroot (Pediomelum esculentum). Penstemons are often a signal of prairie habitat. This species runs right down the center of the prairie belt, thus, does not exist in Ohio. Indian breadroot has a similar distribution with an interesting population in New York. Plains Indians valued this genus above all other wild edibles for the hardy tubers they produced. In late summer, the leaves and stalks fall off and blow away.

 An expired marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) and a dwarf leadplant (Amorpha nana). Like Indian breadroot, dwarf leadplant is a legume. Legumes contain a symbiotic relationship with rhizomatic bacteria that fixes nitrogen into a useable food source for plants. Thus, an abundance of legumes are an indicator of rich prairies and lush plant communities.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

North Dakota Lady's Slippers

Who says North Dakota lacks in the wildflower department? The wildlife refuge I work for in North Dakota (Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge) owns and manages twenty-eight waterfowl protection areas (WPA), which include some of the healthiest native plant communities remaining in the state. Yesterday, my supervisor handed me a project to monitor existing populations of lady's slippers - a dream job for me. As I cruised the first area on an ATV, I didn't know what to expect. Before long, I was forced to park the vehicle and walk the rest of the way due to such a heavy abundance of "slippers."

Greater yellow lady's slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. makasin) is a northwestern variety of C. parviflorum. Ohio has the eastern variety "lesser yellow lady's sipper" (Cypripedium parviflorum var. parviflorum), which is endangered there. The last variety of C. parviflorum is the most common (var. pubescens), which is a larger species that prefers less exposed areas such as woodlands. The species above, nor any species I found that day, are currently listed in the county I found them - Foster county.

The most abundant species I found was small white lady's slipper (Cypripedium candidum), which covered the sedge meadows by the hundreds. 

 Deeper into the areas, I came across groups of C. parviflorum var. makasin among C. candidum plants, which are two that have been well documented to create a hybrid, C. x andrewsii. Mind you, I haven't been able to find either of these species in distribution maps for Foster county. They have been found about two counties to the north according to and other sources.

 Soon after I found a group of plants that stuck out like sore thumbs. They were in prime maturity with an ivory color to the lip and maroon - yellow sepals. I immediately thought C. x andrewsii. This plant had never been documented in this county before. I only found these plants near populations of both yellow and white slippers. Flora of North Americas article on C. x andrewsii.

 As if the day hadn't given me enough pleasure, I stumbled upon a small cluster of plants on the very last area I visited. The plants seemed taller than all the others I had seen but perhaps that is due to their added exposure. Anyway, I saw hundreds and hundreds of small white lady's slippers throughout the day and none came remotely close to this extreme and beautiful variant. The lips were speckled with pink glitter and the tongue had a heavy splash of red. A truly beautiful variant!

I can only hope for more opportunities like this. In a couple of weeks, I hope to add to this post with showy lady's slipper (C. reginae) as well.