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Missives From The Field

It’s been a long time, and I shouldn’t have left you without an update to step to! Apologies for missing our April blog post. As I kept telling people around the office, I could have used a whole second April and possibly one more May to catch up on all the projects we’ve got in the hopper. To that end, I thought it’d be a nice time to share some of the goings on around our properties so far this spring.

April’s weather brought some outstanding conditions for prescribed burns, and May in turn has treated us to some spectacular blossoms as fire-dependent ecosystems continue to express themselves. We were able to burn two of the savannas at Bloody Run County Park; the southernmost savanna put on an incredible display in response.

Yellow star grass (Hypoxis hirsuta) along the Well's Hollow Trail

Hoary puccoon, blue-eyed grass, yellow star grass, wood betony, leadplant, panic grass… All species of high conservation value, none of which have ever been seeded on the site nor documented in the past. It’s incredible to think that these plants have sat suppressed, waiting under the shade of encroaching woody vegetation for the right conditions to return. If you get a chance to explore up there, you’re in for a treat.

Blue eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium)

In fact, we even got to take a whole mess of 8th graders from MFL MarMac up to see the early spring beauty. Even as sulking middle schoolers, they found a sense of childlike wonder amongst the fireworks display of blooming wildflowers.

"Oh that's different."

Last fall we had the opportunity to drop a little excess seed onto the middle savanna, and, well, seeing how the rest of the site has changed so dramatically from fire alone, it’s hard to say what came by the enhancement seeding and what was simply the result of returning this historic ecological process to the already high-quality site.

We also carried out burns at Osborne Park on a fallow field targeted for prairie reconstruction this fall thanks to a Wildlife Diversity grant from the Iowa DNR. This first fire has stimulated a vigorous response from the smooth brome left over from the site’s life as a pasture, which is exactly the intent. Getting the root systems of this hardy, cool-season grass to expend energy sending up new shoots will give subsequent treatments a better chance of killing it off for good, giving us a blank slate to work with when it’s time for a seeding.

It was a hot one!

It's the same process we’ve gotten to see play out over the last year or so at the East Becker Wildlife Area, a gem of rugged bluffs and bucolic grasslands overlooking the Turkey River near Millville. Gregg Pattison of the US Fish & Wildlife Service brought the no-till drill down to seed into the terminated vegetation, and with a few dollars left over, CCCB staff has been able to take a big bite out of some long-overdue forestry objectives for the site’s unique and delightful oak woodland adjacent to the prairie.

Rows from the no-till drill, seen steaming in the distance

In between the fire and chainsaws, this spring gave an opportunity to create as well. Another fallow field between the archery ranges at Osborne got approximately 45 black oak and shagbark hickory trees planted into it. The site has remained stable for decades, with potential to become an open grown savanna, a proper prairie, or a proper forest with the right treatment. Planting some widely spaced savanna specialist trees keeps the door open to pursue any of those paths down the road – that is, if the deer don’t get ‘em first.

Hang in there little buddy!

The trees were “leftovers” from our annual Arbor Day tree planting celebrations at county schools. Over 350 4th grade students got to spend a little time outside the week of Arbor Day planting a large shade tree donated by the Fort Atkinson nursery, talking and learning about trees, and taking home their own little seedling to grow up right alongside them. It’s one of my favorite weeks each year. There’s nothing better than hearing the kids tell me about their siblings’ tree, gesturing excitedly that it’s “THIIIIS BIG NOW!!!”

North Fayette Valley 4th graders celebrating their arbor day labors

It’s an experience that speaks directly to the value and intimacy of simply planting a tree. It’s one thing to enjoy the spectacular diversity of our Northeast Iowa forest on a walk in the woods. But to make trees truly feel alive, I believe everyone needs to watch one grow for a few years. These fourth graders get the opportunity to watch a tiny, fragile seedling no bigger than their shin develop into small saplings by middle school, perhaps even having a chance to sit in their shade by the time they graduate. When we get a chance to form a bond with a single tree, it makes the whole forest feel that much more magical.

Thinking a little further down the canopy, we also dropped 144 milkweed plugs – half whorled milkweed, half butterfly milkweed – into the ground at Bloody Run Park. The pollinator plugs came from Monarch Watch, a landscape-scale organization dedicated to protecting and enhancing pollinator habitat throughout the country. With a bone-dry spring I felt compelled to haul a water backpack up to the blufftops and give them a little drink, but I’m awfully thankful that we’ve at least got a few drops in the last week to give my calves a little break from the climb.

And of course, field trip season got into full swing! The kids seemed awfully excited to be out of the classroom – I wonder why? We had three different groups from Central come through like a bunch of Tasmanian devils for Earth day, sending one crew down the river from Elkader to Motor Mill to clean up (and the dump truck load of tires suggests they did a pretty good job), one group planted some trees above the pond at Osborne Park, and one last group pulled invasive bush honeysuckle from an area targeted for Aspen regeneration near the back 9 of the Osborne disc golf course.

Central High Schoolers setting off from Elkader to clean up their river.

They must not have had too bad a time, because less than a month later another group reached out to see if we needed any volunteer help at the Motor Mill Historic Site. I cautiously offered an opportunity to haul heavy brush off the south unit savanna restoration. "Great!" they said. Hopefully I didn't burn out their good will. Another group gave the Mill it's annual facelift just in time for the tour season.

"I'm gonna be so sore at baseball practice."

All in all, this little missive from the field speaks to the depth and breadth of community support for conservation around these parts. It also speaks to the way in which conservation can become contagious. It's immensely satisfying work, but the real magic happens when we can get people out to see, experience, and understand why it matters. When Central schools wants to come back to do more volunteer work a month after a cold, laborious day on the water, or when MFL MarMac reaches out see if we can share some of what we're doing for Bloody Run's fishing and forest health, we know we're cultivating a valuable connection between public land and the public.

To that end, we had one last up close look at habitat work in May. We kicked off our monthly "field day fridays" with a trip to East Becker to take a look at the prairie reconstruction. Thankfully, we had a close relative of the actual Becker family on hand to offer even deeper site history, and some keen observational skills to boot.

"I always thought this place grew the biggest plants for some reason. I mean look at this Burdock!"

Looking Forward

I'll bet when it's all said and done we'll wish we had a second June, too. We've got some GREAT stuff lined up for the next month, and we hope you'll join us! On June 5th, our Nature Kids programs will continue with an investigation of reptiles and amphibians. If you have a little one with a penchant for the creepy crawly, this is a great opportunity for them to learn a little more.

On June 17th, O.W.L.S. will travel to the rarely-visited Kleve-Schneider Fen, one of the largest remaining of these rare and magical ecosystems. Strap on the muck boots and get ready to see some truly unique plant life in this wetland oasis near Postville.

On June 19th and 20th, the CCCB will help with Elkader's 175th anniversary celebration. A picnic in the park, a guided hike along the Pony Hollow Trail, some pioneer games, and a float along the Turkey River... Sounds pretty good, but we'll have a lot of great things to compete with for this jam-packed event.

Finally, on June 25th we'll had back towards Millville for a visit to the West Becker wildlife area. We've put a lot of sweat equity into this site over the last year, and for many years before that. It should be a fascinating if possibly pokey time to be in the woods, so dress accordingly! As I always tell my coworkers before dragging them into the jungle, that means pants.

If you'd like any more information about these programs or anything else we've got going on, give us a call at the Osborne Nature Center 563-245-1516.

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