Learning to burn

The guy who has been leading the stewardship effort for the patch of prairie right next to Winfield Village is looking to transition some of the effort to someone who lives here, and I have expressed a willingness to take on some of the stewardship tasks.

This would primarily consist of working to remove non-prairie species, together with using the prairie for education, and advocating for the prairie when other people imagine some other use for the land. But one essential step with maintaining prairie land is occasional burning. I could probably manage the rest of it, but I’m certainly not qualified to do a prairie burn.

To start to remedy that, yesterday I participated in a burn at a small patch of prairie land near Urbana, managed by a guy from Pheasants Forever. I had told him of my interest in learning to manage a burn, so he talked me through what he did as he did it, explaining the thought-process behind where he started and what he burned, and also introduced me to the equipment involved.

The patch of prairie we burned was 1.5 acres, and took a little over an hour to burn.

I neglected to get a picture of myself taken while I was dressed in my Nomex coveralls, but above see a nice picture from the burn itself, and below for an older picture of our own little patch of prairie.

Collecting prairie seeds

As part of becoming a master naturalist, Jackie has been going on volunteer work days at local natural areas. A couple of times I’ve gone along as well, most recently on Saturday to Meadowbrook Park where we gathered prairie seeds.

Jackie is trying to learn to identify all the plants during all the seasons, so she made a point of gathering some of each of the prairie species that the organizers wanted.

I figured I’d just try and be productive, so I focused on a plant I knew I’d be able to identify, and just gathered baptisia aka wild indigo aka false indigo. Over the course of 90 minutes or so I manged to fill a big paper grocery bag about three-quarters full of seed pods. Apparently the crop is better this year than last year, when weevils consumed nearly every seed. (Although I did see a lot of weevils—kind of disturbing because their size and shape makes it easy to mistake them for ticks.)

It was pretty easy. I spotted a baptisia from the sidewalk and gathered its seeds (leaving about half behind, so that there will be some seeds to disperse naturally). Then I looked around, spotted another plant a few yards away, and moved to that one. They’re not very dense in the prairie, but I don’t think I ever harvested a plant without being able to spot at least one more to move to, and then another visible from that one.

The baptisia flowering stalks seemed to be a favorite of some medium-sized black wasp. I skipped those stalks. They are also a favorite of a large green and brown praying mantis, which blends in surprisingly well for such a large insect. I saw three of them, barely noticing two before I started harvesting, and not noticing the third until it scrambled off the stalk.

Such a handsome face

(That’s the same kind of mantis, although not taken in the prairie.)

These seeds are going to be used right in Meadowbrook Park. Over the winter, the mowed area in the southwest corner of the park will be turned into more prairie.

The workday shifts are nominally 2 hours, but they don’t work us very hard. Especially when we’re all off working in different locations, they start to try to get us rounded up again after just 90 minutes or so. (I think especially when it’s hot they keep the shifts short.)

This particular work day was in celebration of National Public Lands Day, and while the workers refreshed ourselves with water, lemonade, and snacks back at the starting point, one of the organizers read an excerpt from a proclamation by Barack Obama in recognition of the day.

Then they gave anyone who wanted one a certificate recognizing our participation, and let us go.