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Creek Bends: Mother Nature requires patience
Habitat restoration is not a sprint, not even a marathon, it just goes on
(later corrected for butterfly IDs)
Patience is the ability required to fight what comes naturally to animals like us.
Naturally, we are a prey species with a built-in adrenaline boost for fleeing and fighting. Naturally, we have brains that allow us to alter our habitat and shelter to suit our desires.
On the deer stand patience is resisting feelings that creep in from cold-numbed extremities, into that old lower-back ailment that reminds you yoga once helped and up into a brain telling your body to stand, stretch, roll your neck.
But you must sit.
Look with your eyes, not your head.
Sit. Meditate. Listen. Breathe easy. Absorb.
Know that you will sense movement in the woods before you fully hear or see it.
Patience is mental calisthenics.
I have been told I’m extremely patient.
My wife loves me in spite of some of what she has pointed out are qualities of a glacial pace.
I have great wildlife photography patience and stupidly relaxed fishing patience that might lead some to think I almost don’t care. Big-game hunting patience in the wilderness comes easy; I can glass all day, walk all day, for days at a time. Deer-stand and turkey-sit patience comes harder. Dog-training patience? No problem.
But here on these 40 acres at Snake Creek, I’m still developing a new kind of patience.
Having patience with Mother Nature is a challenge, speaking of actions at a glacial pace.
Habitat improvement, it turns out, is a years-long, never-ending deal. You can get a better handle on things, and make improvements, but you’re never “done.”
I knew that. I just hadn’t really experienced it close-up and personally.
Transformation of the landscape at Snake Creek, I’m guessing, is going to come with small hints, in fits and starts, and, probably at times, progress lost.
“Just light a match and wait,” they say.
A Natural Resource Conservation Service land manager once told me, “it’s a process of years and decades, not weeks and months.”
I believe in fire’s natural impact and have written about the places where its use has come to fruition. I’ve just never been in the boots of the guy watching it happen from a rough start.
I don’t even own an acre of the Snake Creek property, but I’m emotionally invested in the joy of documenting the changes and learning how it all works. I have to admit that, at the start here, it’s making me a little bit nuts.
I’ve been putting off writing about it, waiting for changes.
I don’t want to tell people all about efforts that went for naught. Then again, maybe that’s the whole point. So here I am, writing about it.
So far, habitat-wise, we’ve only really tackled about a 10-acre area between the woody ridge and the creek. More fun lies ahead, much more.
Fourteen months have passed since the first big positive prairie habitat management effort came to Snake Creek. I’m not counting an early winter 2020 brush-hog clearing that inadvertently set loose a Sericea lespedeza invasion.
Sericea lespedeza, if you don’t know it, is a self-inflicted wound, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the turn of the 20th Century. Apparently, it was thought that the hardy, woody, Asian exotic would grow anywhere (it does) and provide hay, improve pastures, stop soil erosion, and supply food and cover for wildlife.
Instead, we got an aggressive, invasive weed that is high enough in tannins that it’s not very palatable. It is extremely difficult to control, escapes cultivation, and outcompetes native plants to create unproductive monocultures. Its seeds endure for centuries. It’s a nightmare.
May through August of 2021 was The Summer of Sericea at Snake Creek, courtesy of that seed-spreading mow the prior November.
We didn’t recognize what was happening until the plants matured, so the landowners had to wait (there’s that word, “wait”) to execute their first salvo, just prior to the Sericea blooming in late summer. A broad application of triclopyr herbicide targeted the woody lespedeza but was tolerated by the more desirable broadleaf forbs.
They then worked with the Oklahoma Department of Forestry and had to wait to obtain a permit and to map out and create a firebreak in February. Then came weather delays, more waiting, and green-up. The March fire was a little bit late, was not bad, but not great. Controlled burns are kinda like going for a meal at Sonic drive-in, it’s not always great, but it’s never bad.
It was just … patchy. The best burn spots happened where patches of Johnson and Bermuda grasses (also invasive) filled the gaps between the woody stems of Sericea.
The landowners already plan to clear the burn line this winter to be ready as soon as the wind and weather allow another burn this winter/spring.
It’s hard to fight the urge to just mow, plow, seed and plant. But that’s not how nature works. I have been allowed a little experimental plot, but that will be a column subject all on its own.
Last spring we identified several growths of tree of heaven, an invasive tree that spreads both by seed and by root. We learned about hack-and-squirt treatment, and also learned it is best to wait until fall, when the tree sends nutrients to its roots, to do that.
Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait!
The landowners applied to Monarch Watch and scored several flats of milkweed to plant on the property. The drought hit about the time the flats arrived and I spent way too much on gas driving out there to water those plants in the ensuing weeks, only to learn that armadillos are attracted to spot watering.
Probably seeking grubs in the wet soil, those nosey buggers uprooted the milkweed plugs and left them lying on the ground to whither in the 100-degree heat. I’m hopeful that, among the few plants that survived, enough of the root structures remain for regrowth next spring.
We’ll wait and see. Wait, wait wait.
In April I yanked out a mess of Johnson grass by a slough along the creek and planted three, 3-year-old button-bush shrubs. They survived the big spring flood, did well through the summer drought, and I have high hopes for those little dudes.
Once established, those shrubs should grow about a foot a year. They’re thin, 3- to 4-foot-tall spikes now. Just wait about four or five years and they’ll probably start to look like something. Just wait and see.
Upon close examination, the fire and the herbicides did help the meadow. The Sericea remains but it only dominates in patches.
Tall frostweeds dominated most of the meadow view this summer; both a yellow wingstem (Verbsina alternifolia) and a white wingstem (Verbesina verginica) grew thick and stretched 4 to 7 feet tall.
The tall thistle returned but drought kept it relatively short and many of its blooms were shriveled and sad. The passion vine that creates a super combo with the thistles for a late summer emergence of great spangled fritillary butterflies did not suffer from the drought.
The first successful nest of eastern bluebirds came off at Snake Creek this summer. That was a definite summer highlight.
The fine folks at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service arrived to do some feral pig trapping. That was a highlight too, and an effort that continues.
The Johnson grass and Bermuda still dominate, too, but a patch with several bunches of eastern gamagrass turned up, as did some inland wood oats. I’m working on identifying some of the other bunch grasses.
Some common ragweed turned up. It’s great for wildlife. Smartweed in the damp areas is another good one for wildlife. Some blue mistflower turned up down by the creek. It was fun to find some wood sage blooms. And a few blooms of tall ironweed appeared as well. The red berries of some Carolina snailseed popped up along the edge of the timber this season.
While we were planting milkweeds, we found that some tall blooming butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) decided to pop up this spring. Thanks to the fire, perhaps? I collected seeds from it to sew next spring in more places. We also found green milkweed (Asclepias Viridis). I collected seeds from that as well.
The list of positive finds is growing and, hopefully, will continue to grow.
Until then I try to sit, meditate, listen, breathe easy, and absorb.
But I just can’t wait.
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