Monday, December 12, 2016

Grassland Restoration

Grassland bird species are in decline, mainly from loss of habitat, which is why grassland conservation and restoration are part of the National Audubon Society's strategic plan.

With a cost-share grant from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Audubon South Carolina committed to convert recently purchased agricultural fields to grasslands. These fields are adjacent to Mims Road across from the driveway entrance to the Francis Beidler Forest.

After decades of use for agriculture, the fields held few desirable plant species in the soil seed bank. Most of what volunteered was dog fennel (Eupatorium capillifolium), which would form a dense, sun-blocking thicket having little wildlife value. Therefore, the first step in the conversion was to herbicide the emerging vegetation in order to clear the site for the introduction of desirable grassland plant species.

Plants referred to as "ag weeds" in fallow field - Image by Mark Musselman
The fields one month after planting.

Field across from driveway - Image by Mark Musselman
Field across and right from driveway - Image by Mark Musselman
Field right from driveway across Cantley Rd. - Image by Mark Musselman
The first two fields shown above were planted in grassland mixes (Showy Wildflower and Mixed Meadow). The third field will receive longleaf pine seedlings this winter, so it was planted in a longleaf pine understory mix. The plantings were accomplished through the use of the USFWS seed drill, which was towed behind our tractor. Seeds are placed in the hopper where agitators feed seed into separate tubes leading to the seed drills. A harrow disturbs the soil ahead of the seed drills. The seed drills place the seed at the proper depth below the soil surface before a set of compacting wheels ensure the seeds are covered and in good contact with the soil.

Seed drill on transport trailer - Image by Mark Musselman
Seed mix prior to loading into seed drill - Image by Mark Musselman
After three month, the fields showed green with a mix of wildflower colors vying for attention.

Field across from driveway - Image by Mark Musselman
Field across from driveway - Image by Mark Musselman
Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) - Image by Mark Musselman
False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) - Image by Mark Musselman
Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) - Image by Mark Musselman
Indian Blanket (Gaillardia pulchella) - Image by Mark Musselman
The grasslands will be burned annually to prevent trees from becoming established, to reduce fuel (dead plant material), and to invigorate new plant growth. Due to the dry weather since Hurricane Matthew, we have been waiting for some precipitation to fall before conducting a prescribed burn. The rain over the last week certainly fits that bill, so now we wait for the next day with winds out of the south or southwest to ensure any smoke blows toward the swamp and away from neighbors' homes.

Ready for winter burn - Image by Mark Musselman

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Hurricane Matthew Boardwalk Repair

In our previous post regarding Hurricane Matthew, we showed the three boardwalk issues related to the storm. Yesterday, with the water finally low enough to use the chainsaw on the oak's trunk, we began the final repair.
Oak tip-up damage - Image Mark Musselman
For the beginners out there, the first rule of boardwalk repair is to avoid the venomous Eastern Cottonmouth. If you cannot see the snake, we will remove you from the boardwalk repair volunteer list and you can scroll down to the bottom of the blog for a helpful image.

Eastern Cottonmouth supervising repairs - Image Mark Musselman
With the oak resting in two places against separate trees as well as on a branch impaled in the earth, calculating the direction in which the tension would release was the largest concern. Not only did we not want to pinch a saw, we wanted the root ball to drop back in place and remove itself as an obstacle.
Crown of oak - Image Mark Musselman
Mike Dawson cutting trunk - Image Mark Musselman

With some scrap lumber supporting the trunk on the crown side of the cut, the root side of the cut stood up and dropped the root ball back in its hole clearing the way for the boardwalk repair.

Root ball dropped in place - Image Mark Musselman
Supported boardwalk - Image Mark Musselman
Mighty oak - Image Mark Musselman
Only one mid-rail was broken by the uplifting. However, the intact section of boardwalk was too heavy for two men to move as a unit.
Boardwalk in the breach - Image Mark Musselman
Therefore, the railings and deck boards needed to be removed...
Removing deck boards - Image Mark Musselman
...and reassembled once the supporting boards were lifted back in place.
Attaching stringers - Image Mark Musselman
Decking complete - Image Mark Musselman
This morning, we returned to ram the lifted 4x4s back to level and reattach the mid-rails and handrails. All sections of the boardwalk are now repaired and open! After some repairs to a nearby rest stop, the boardwalk will be back to pre-Matthew form.
Final touches - Image Mark Musselman
For those who missed the snake earlier:
Cottonmouth revealed - Image Mark Musselman

Monday, October 24, 2016

Hurricane Matthew

The wind and rain of Hurricane Matthew visited the Francis Beidler Forest October 7-8, 2016. In preparation for the storm, we put shutters on the windows, unplugged the electronics and went home.

Shuttered windows - Image Mark Musselman
Neither the wind nor the rain alone would have caused much damage to the swamp. However, in combination they brought down some mighty trees, mainly oaks. It rained through the night of October 7th, which saturated the ground and set up the shallow-rooted oaks for the morning winds of October 8th.

We knew there would be trees along driveway that would need to be cleared before we could access the buildings and boardwalk. There were twenty-one trees across the driveway and all but two simply tipped over.
Trees across driveway - Image Mark Musselman
The vast majority of the trees across the driveway fell adjacent to the recent clear-cut on our neighbor's property to the north. With absolutely nothing to slow the wind, the narrow strip of trees in the drainage along the north side of the driveway took the full brunt of the storm's winds.
Neighboring clear-cut visible in background - Image Mark Musselman
With help from the staff of the Silver Bluff Audubon Center and Sanctuary, the driveway was clear the day after the storm. No buildings sustained damage. The boardwalk had three damaged sections along the backside.
Driveway after clearing - Image Mark Musselman
The boardwalk damage spanned the spectrum from major to minor to emotional. One section sustained only damage to a few deck boards and was quickly repaired. Another portion of the boardwalk (image below) had an oak destroy the entire 12-foot section, but the repair was straightforward.
Damaged boardwalk - Image Richard Covey
Major damage was inflicted upon the boardwalk by an oak tipping from alongside the boardwalk with the root ball uplifting an entire section like a drawbridge. Full of soil, the root ball cannot be chainsawed without damage to the saw nor can the root ball be easily dismantled by other means. The crown end of the heavy tree is still supported by at least one other tree upon which it fell, so cutting through the trunk without pinching a saw will be tricky. This repair has yet to be attempted as the water level, which rose over the boardwalk after this image was taken, is only now receding below the fallen tree.
Damaged boardwalk - Image Richard Covey
Finally, the emotional damage occurred when the living-yet-hollow bald cypress, into which visitors could step, folded over upon itself. Search a visitor's photo library and they likely have an image of someone in their group peering out from "the hollow tree."
The Hollow Tree - Image Richard Covey
After the storm and most of the cleanup, the water continued to rise. In the image below, a sign on the boardwalk rail shows the water level from last October's historic rain. Just beyond that sign at the base of the hickory tree is a nail denoting the high-water level from 1979's Hurricane David. Hurricane Matthew's water level crept slightly higher than what can be seen in the background, but fell short of Hurricane David's mark.
High-water levels - Image Mark Musselman
The next two images show the boardwalk before the rising water came up over the deck boards.
Rising water - Image Mark Musselman
Rising water - Image Mark Musselman
The following images show the high water from last October's historic rain. Although slightly higher than the Hurricane Matthew water level, the images give an idea of how the boardwalk appeared.
Boardwalk directly behind nature center - Image Mark Musselman
Boardwalk at #1 - Image Mark Musselman
Boardwalk near #2 - Image Mark Musselman
Boardwalk at fork near #3 - Image Mark Musselman
Boardwalk near #4 - Image Mark Musselman
Boardwalk back to #14 - Image Mark Musselman
Boardwalk at #18 - Image Mark Musselman
Boardwalk at #19 hollow tree - Image Mark Musselman
Boardwalk at #11 Goodson Lake - Image Mark Musselman
Beyond some road erosion, the only other damage yet detected occurred in our young longleaf pine stands. Seedlings that may have been planted in wet areas or areas with poorly consolidated soils after logging operations were unable to stand up to the storm's winds as 12-15' trees.

Fallen longleaf pine - Image Mark Musselman
Leaning longleaf pine - Image Mark Musselman

Monday, October 17, 2016

GP Longleaf Pine Burn

Hurricane Matthew brought wind and rain to the southeast. Four Holes Swamp filled short of last October's record water levels, but rose over the deck of the boardwalk and overflowed swamp-crossing roads like US Hwy 78. However, the weather after the storm has been cooler, less humid, without precipitation and with winds generally out of the northeast.
Map of tract, Image Mark Musselman
To conduct a prescribed fire at the GP longleaf pine tract, the first tract planted at the Francis Beidler Forest, wind direction is important. Due to the tract's location on the west side of Hwy 27, the winds must be from the northeast or east to prevent smoke from crossing the highway and presenting a danger to drivers. However, northeast winds are not the common wind direction for our area and are often preceded by or accompanied by precipitation.  Spoiler alert: precipitation tends to put a damper on fires and fuels.

Therefore, after clearing the nature center's driveway of fallen trees and the fire break around the GP tract of several stout fallen oaks, we sent out a call for volunteers to help with the prescribed fire on Friday.
Volunteers! (l to r) Bob, Bob, Michael, and Joe; Image Mark Musselman
With the fire break disced, the middle fire break was cleared with a leaf blower in order to burn the 21-acre tract in two units. A test fire was started along the east side of the middle fire break in unit A in order to determine how the fuels would burn. Normally, a test fire is started in a corner in order to allow a rapid extinguishing of the fire should it behave contrary to expectations. However, water oaks have been allowed to infest this tract and are especially dense around the edges. The flat oak leaves do not burn well unless licked by a hot fire pushed by the wind, which allows the fuels to be preheated and dried. Additionally, the majority of fuels on the tract were pine straw and small woody materials, so a test fire in the oak leaves would not reflect conditions across most of the tract.

Test fire, Image Mark Musselman
Note the circular shape of the test fire as it slowly burns evenly in all directions in the absence of wind.

Being satisfied with the fire behavior at the test fire site, we used drip torches to light a line of along the line 2-6. We chose to burn unit A first as it is the closest to the highway and completing it before conditions changed was preferable. Additionally, unit A had been burned two years ago, while unit B had not been burned for 6.5 years, which meant that there would be more fuel on the ground in unit B and the possibility of a larger fire. With a swamp full of water to the west and a burned out unit A to the east, a larger fire in unit B would be easier to contain. As the fire slowly backed into the wind from the eastnortheast within unit A, we began lighting spot strip fires at 20-meter intervals toward the highway. Below is an example from later in the day when we burned unit B.

Spot strip fire in unit B, Image Mark Musselman
Dropping a continuous line of fire uses more diesel/gas fuel and creates a curtain of fire that generates more heat than is desired. By dropping spots of fuel from the drip torches every 10-15 meters, the spots burn out in all directions, like the test fire image, at a lower intensity. Eventually, the spots burn together and the fire briefly intensifies before consuming all the fuel and extinguishing itself.
Spot strip fires burning (left), burned unit A (right), Image Mark Musselman
The result of the fire is a reduction of fuel on the ground, which will limit damage from a wildfire caused by lightning or human negligence. The next rain will help wash the nitrogen from the burnt fuels back into the soil. The bare mineral soil will provide the necessary conditions for longleaf pine seeds to germinate and survive. The seeds can germinate in the duff that existed prior to the fire, but survival is less likely as the duff layer can dry more quickly than the soil allowing the seedling to desiccate. Competing loblolly pines and hardwoods are killed outright or top-killed as they are not adapted to fire like longleaf pines. Grasses and other forbs are invigorated by fire and immediately begin sending out softer material more palatable to deer and other wildlife. Not all desirable plants and animals survive, but on balance, fire is overwhelmingly beneficial to the longleaf pine ecosystem.

At the end of the day, approximately 75% of the 21 acres burned and no smoke reached the highway. Success!
Burned unit A, Image Mark Musselman
Burned area between units (see volunteer image above), Image Mark Musselman
Smoke free!, Image Mark Musselman