Monday, April 28, 2014

Adventures in Prescribed Burning

Yesterday, I spent the late morning, afternoon, and evening with Dave Borneman of Restoring Nature with Fire performing a prescribed burn.  Our burn unit was 71 acres in the headwaters of the Shiawassee River near Davisburg, Michigan.

Here is some background on prescribed burning.  Prior to European settlement, the southwest Michigan landscape burned possibly as frequently as every three to five years due to fires started by lightning strikes and anthropological sources.  Native Americans started landscape fires for a variety of reasons.

Generally-speaking, many of our native plants have evolved to handle fire and fire is actually beneficial for their growth cycle.  Many non-native plants are not adapted to fire.  So, prescribed burning promotes our natives and sets back non-natives.

There are different types of natural fires.  The huge all consuming fires with 100 feet tall flames are called crown fires or catastrophic fires.  The prescribed burns that are performed in Michigan are more typically crawling or surface fires, where the vegetation and/or leaf litter burns at the ground level.  Careful understanding of the amount of fuel present and the behavior of fire given the temperature, wind, and relative humidity conditions helps burn bosses (technical term for person with lots of burning experience) keep the fire under control.

That said, sometimes unexpected things do occasionally catch fire, when you are burning acres upon acres.  Yesterday, a half decayed, half still living White Birch tree caught on fire.  I noticed the tree from about 250 feet away and, after walking over, took this video.

Birch Bark is oily (and, incidentally, an effective material to start a campfire), so having burned around numerous Birch trees, I am surprised that this does not happen more often.

The burn crew typically is in constant communication with radios.  At the tail end of the video, some one radios instructions for Scott, a co-worker.

Other things I saw out in the woods were gigantic ant hills, easily measuring 10 feet plus diameter at the base and numerous crayfish burrows along the river and swampy areas.  Word is that Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnakes overwinter in the crayfish burrows.  The burn yesterday was patchy but good.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Waking up Wildlife in the Garden

One of my client's home and gardens is fortunate enough to be located in the middle of 12 acres of beatiful oak-hickory forest.  The forest floor, yesterday, was covered in the mottled leave of Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium american in the Liliaceae family) and Cutleaf Toothwort (Cardamine concatenata in the Brassicaceae family) sticking up through the oak leaf litter.  Of the hundreds of single leafs poking up, we only saw one early flower.  In the coming few days, there will likely be thousands of blooms.

So, one of our tasks was to rebuilt an eroded retaining wall.  As it was so early in the season, we discovered the winter resting pace for some forest floor critters.  The first, gave my co-worker quite a shock when she picked up the rock.

A beautiful Eastern Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum) rested here underneath this rock probably the entire winter, until we woke it up.  Eastern Milk Snakes normally behave nervous and are quick to flee.  But as the temperature was maybe 40 degrees, it was "slow".

Underneath another rock, we discovered some Eastern Red-backed Salamanders (Plethodon cinereus).

Neither the snake nor the salamanders were as pleased to have been discovered, as we surely were pleased to discover them.  Seeing such wildlife in a garden was a wonderful experience.