Much of Hixon Forest is chock-full of buckthorn and other understory invasive plants such that the trails can feel hemmed in leaving few sight lines into the surrounding forest. Off trail, the forest floor can look bare with not much growing. One reason for this is that buckthorn produces emodin, which is liberated into the surrounding soil and is highly allelopathic (suppresses the growth) to many other plants causing a dense monoculture of buckthorn. There are some emodin tolerant plants. Unfortunately, one of these is Oriental bittersweet, another highly invasive plant. Emodin, found in the leaves and berries, is also toxic to many insects, amphibians, mammals, and birds potentially causing declines in these populations.
Over the past few years, Friends of the Blufflands has been thinning the trees and clearing the understory below Lookout Prairie and above Savanna Trail, including removing a lot of buckthorn, to form a more natural transition from prairie to forest that was more common when fire was more prevalent on the landscape and when the current day nonnative invasive plants were not present. One description of the transition from prairie into forest is defined by canopy cover. In this scheme a prairie has somewhere between 0 to 10% canopy cover from trees, savanna 10-30%, woodland 30-80%, and forest 80-100%, though these percentages vary between experts. Others define these ecosystems by the number of trees per acre. Friends hopes that adding this savanna to the mix will increase the habitat value and produce a richer variety of plants and animals.
Anecdotally this seems to be the case. As we have been working and clearing the area, we seem to have noticed more plants and critters active there. It is recognized that this might just be because we have recently been spending more time there, but it seems to be true even taking this into account. Some of the more shade tolerant plants from the prairie above the savanna are creeping down into the cleared area nicely and we expect this downhill progression to continue. We have also been seeing new plants such as figwort and poke milkweed coming in that were absent before clearing. More snakes and birds seem to be showing up in the area as well. Here's an unfortunate toad seen on the savanna which became a meal for a common garter snake:
Recently a red-headed woodpecker was seen on the nearby restored Zoerb Prairie. We hope that they will soon find the savanna and maybe even nest there!
This project has been possible because of the contributions of many volunteers. In the past week a lot of progress has been made with the help of the Wisconsin Conservation Corp. One of those serving is Lola, a WCC Individual Placement involved with both Friends of the Blufflands and the Mississippi Valley Conservancy for the summer. The WCC Local La Crosse Crew also spent the week with us, serving from 6/19 to 6/23. In addition, the Outdoor Recreation Alliance trail maintenance crew joined us on 6/22 and 6/23. Here is a photo of the group on 6/23 after many hours of work...still smiling!:
In the back row are Ian, Lily, Evan, Bode, Alex. Front row Jerard, Kyle, Brody, Maggie, Lola. Joining the group are Friends board members Mike O'Brien and Pat Wilson. Note the open area in the background that is part of the cleared area of the new savanna.
So where does "Talkoot" come in? Well, it's an old Finnish word that translates to "working together to do something that one would not be able to do alone." It's kind of like the old collective "barn raising" that used to take place and still does in the Amish community. Many from the community band together to accomplish what someone alone or even a few could not do by themselves. An integral part of this tradition is a feast after the hard day of work. In the spring this often includes a refreshing drink of birch sap, "mahla" in Finnish. We did not have a feast, nor did the group drink birch sap. Instead, each of the members of our Talkoot gang took home boiled down, concentrated sap with a bottle of maple syrup:
So, here's to Talkoot and a new savanna where the light shines in and will hopefully bring a variety of new plants and animals that will call it home!