The big burn will be sometime in the next few weeks, depending on wind, rain, humidity and availability of the fire crew. Until then, I did a small ditch burn for practice to see how well, the fire line kept to the boundaries.
While under my watch here at Two Mile, I’ve not done much to control the invasive cedar trees that move into prairie and pastures if not regularly mowed, grazed, or burned. This year is the year to do it, and this week is the week to get it done.
Actually, that first line has some mis-truths. The Eastern Red Cedar is a native tree to North America and is not a true cedar, but a juniper. Because it is not naturally part of the prairie, and both the shade they create and the water they consume restricts regular growth of grasslands, the Cedar tree is considered invasive. The trees don’t flower until they are about 10 years old, and the berries are often eaten by birds, making the transmission of seeds across lots of miles of ground easy.
To get a sense of where these trees have grown, click the 2009 aerial image to the left and get a view of the topography and clusters of trees. The big pond is in the left third of the image, about in the center. In this photo, the little pond is covered with pond meal and reflects the light. The right two thirds of the photo is the managed habitat for pheasants, deer, and songbirds. Two Mile Ranch gently rolls, with elevations varying about 50 feet. On the far West, the left edge of the photo, is 7 Mile Road. The ground gently slopes down to the pond levels, then rises halfway and down again. On this halfway crest is where the barn, bird pens, and cabin sit. Terrain rises up on the east side, right, of the big pond and crests about one third across the photo. It drops down again and rises back up about two thirds across the photo, then gently slopes to the east, right, property line.
The ground also slopes from north to south, resulting in drainage down the hills east and west and generally north to south. That’s created some erosion issues over time. I’ve included aerial photos dating back to the 1930s to show the evolution of the farm in the last 80 years.
Cedar trees, are the beginnings of a new habitat. Over time, the grass filled prairie converts to a scattered tree savanna, then to a sparse woodland, and ultimately to timber. The US Fish and Wildlife Service suggests that an acre of cedar trees can use 55,000 gallons of water. This translates into roughly 2 inches of rain. Historically, prairies remain prairie because of wildfire. Fire started by lightning and later by man allowed huge sections of prairie to burn, controlling new woody brush, weeds, and encouraging and strengthening grasses.
So with that little bit of ecology lecture out of the way, let’s look at the task at hand. I didn’t do a count, but I estimate between 300 and 400 volunteer Cedar trees over the 60 acres of habitat. Many of them are clustered in the 20 acres or so from the big pond to the valley between the two hills. My original thought was to hire a contractor with a skid steer and tree sheer to remove the trees. But after learning both local contractors were booked solid, I remembered a quote I heard on NPR from J. David Bamberger, http://www.bambergerranch.org/
“You don’t need a bulldozer. You need a chainsaw, wheelbarrow, axes, hand tools, and a lot of friends coming out from time to time, and a little time. You can buy used equipment — don’t waste your money on new — and you can accomplish on your property what I’ve done here.” (quoted on NPR)
So by working a few hours each day, I’ve begun removing the trees with the goal of having them down by Friday. Later posts will show progress and my results.
For the few days leading up to their release, the pheasant behavior changed. First, they would stand at the fence around the perimeter of their pen and stare out. Their focus, if a small animal can have focus, was external to their world, and not internal to the confines of the pen. The second change, especially in the final days, was instead of moving away from me, they began to follow me. if I walked by the pen, instead of moving to the opposite side, they would walk along with me. Most likley because I was feeding them.
I kept their feeder full, but I was also throwing cracked corn around the pen once or twice a day. This gave them something to do (scratch at the grain) and to helped build their carb stores for the first week of freedom Their choice to follow me reinforced it was time to be free. I had probably already imprinted on them more than optimal for their survival.
The day of release, I took some netting and covered the bed of the pick up, with enough left over to make a way to close the birds in the truck once loaded.
My children and I carefully netted each bird, one by one, although a few I managed to catch without the net, and moved them in batches of ten or so, into the truck, for the ride back to deep in the habitat I’ve been working for the last three years.
Once away from the roads, and the neighbors, we parked the truck, opened the netting, and the more adventurous birds immediately took flight up and away. It was amazing to see the distances they flew. Many of then flew a quarter mile or more, before landing neat timber or in the middle of open grass fields The more reserved birds cautiously took to the edge of the truck before flying. Only one or two hopped from the into the deep grass.
All 44 were released into the habitat without injury. During the rest of the day, we saw several birds exploring their new surroundings, and could hear them call off and on to each other. The following morning, a trio of roosters searched for food along the pond banks near the cabin.
By now, they are settled into the deep grass, protected cover, and learning to find food on their own.
The DNR conservation officer I spoke with suggested feeding them for their first week. Originally, when I thought the birds would move as a group, I placed the feeder in a protected spot. When I saw how far and wide they dispersed, I re-thought my plan. Now the feeder is near their fly pen, along with fresh water. Any birds who decide to return to their old feeding area can find food and water.
Next year, my goal is to return 100 to the wild, in two batches of 50 birds each. I am also tempted to keep a few — both as pets and breeding stock, and give a try to incubating chicks in 2010.