Photo of the Week – January 12, 2012

It’s been a very mild winter in Nebraska.  We took advantage of the warm weather on Tuesday to burn a small island in the middle of a stream/wetland restoration project area.  The day was sunny, and it was 55 degrees F with light winds when we started the fire.  (Quite a contrast with Wednesday, which was in the 30’s with winds gusting to 40 mph.)

Fire backs into the wind through a grove of young sandbar willow trees. The fire will top kill the trees, but they will resprout again in the spring.

The objectives for the fire included clearing most of the vegetation from the island to create feeding and roosting habitat for migratory cranes, shorebirds, and other species in the early spring.  We also wanted to burn through the willow trees that were establishing on the island and set them back before they started to crowd out the grasses, sedges, and other herbaceous wetland plants beneath them.  The fire worked out just right, removing most, but not all, of the vegetation.

It’s not often we can get a burn done in January.  Even when it’s warm enough, the days are too short.  By the time the day warms up enough to dry out the grass and support good fire behavior, it’s usually after lunch – and by mid-afternoon, the sun has dropped low enough that fire stops burning well and smoke stops lifting.  Most of our burn units are big enough that it’s difficult to complete them during that short window of time.  The island we burned this week, however, was less than an acre in size and we didn’t have to do anything but light it and let it go.  A great way to do prescribed fire!

The island was surrounded by a wide swath of water and sand, making it very easy to control the fire (which is why I had time to take photographs!).

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The prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata) on the island burned very intensely, but other areas had standing water or other vegetation types that burned less well - leaving a mosaic of burned and unburned vegetation when the fire was over.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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6 Responses to Photo of the Week – January 12, 2012

  1. Patrick Swanson says:

    When was the last time this was burned? Much forb diversity on this island? Thoughts about wetland forb overseeding after a burn? Hope you can show us some pics seeing how the cranes use it and maybe during the growing season to see how it responds…
    Good luck!

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Patrick,

      I don’t think it had ever been burned. The island was created and seeded in 2003. It’s been flooded a few times and mowed once (last year). Forb diversity is decent (some nice plants, including cardinal flower, blue lobelia, and some others), sedge and rush diversity is good. Willows are starting to take up a fairly large area, but aren’t thick or tall enough yet to start shading out herbaceous plants – and for now, at least, I’d like to keep it that way. The other big issue is that reed canarygrass is starting to encroach, and we need to knock that back fast…

      I’ll try to post some updates if I can catch some birds on it. There are lots and lots of goose tracks on the bare sand areas around the island (where we just completed construction of the rest of the wetland restoration.

      Forb seeding after a burn can be effective – at least in some cases. Much seems to depend upon available moisture and vigor of the surrounding plants. No easy answers on why it’s not more predictable, though.

  2. Nice to have an opportunity to just light it and enjoy.

  3. Not to be contrary, but wondering … If you want to really control the willows, why not cut and herbicide the stumps?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      It’s a fair question. The easy answer is that we’ve got enough other trees we’re trying to control that way that we can’t keep up. The more complicated answer is that I’m not sure we’ll permanently try to control the willows on this island – I actually like keeping some around for habitat and because the local beavers like them. When the larger restoration around the island becomes established, we’ll need to make some decisions about where we will allow willows to establish (at least temporarily) and where we won’t. I’m playing with the idea of allowing stands to grow for 4-6 years or so and then knocking them down for several years (with fire or other means) while we let others grow somewhere else. I want to preserve a largely open habitat, but also think it’s important to have some shrub habitat around as well – it’s not real common in our neighborhood.

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