faville grove

'Tis the Season to be Burning

 Bur oaks and fire in the Uplands South. Photo by Drew Harry

 Bur oaks and fire in the Uplands South. Photo by Drew Harry

Spring is prescribed burn season here at Faville Grove, and across southern Wisconsin. There's a lot that goes into a prescribed burn: We take into account the relative humidity, soil moisture, wind speed and direction, temperature, and sky cover. We also need to notify neighbors, the county sheriff, and round up a crew of volunteers on days of a burn. Setting fire to the landscape can be a thrilling experience, but the best burns are those that are boring--excitement means something unplanned has occurred and unplanned events with fire are not a good thing!

You can see in these photos that we only burn when conditions are ideal for what we're trying to accomplish; in both photos with the road, you'll see that the wind is sending the smoke billowing away from the driving lanes, which is necessary for us to conduct a burn along these areas.

A rabbit escapes the burn at Faville Grove. Note the smoke control off the road. Photo by Drew Harry

A rabbit escapes the burn at Faville Grove. Note the smoke control off the road. Photo by Drew Harry

A wall of smoke running away from 89, just what we like to see . Photo by Drew Harry

A wall of smoke running away from 89, just what we like to see . Photo by Drew Harry

Spring is typically the best time for us to accomplish our goals in a prescribed burn. The vegetation is not actively growing, and the strong underground roots systems of prairie plants have evolved with fire and are not at all damaged by these burns, in fact, these burns stimulate nutrient cycling, flowering, and seed production--making it a booming area for pollinators, birds, and seed collectors who are gathering seed for future prairie restorations. We will occasionally burn in late fall in areas like Martin and Tillotson Prairies--wet prairies that are often too wet to burn in the spring. However, these burns somewhat limit habitat for overwintering birds and mammals, so we try to limit the area burned. We'll also burn in summer during the growing season, usually in small areas to control problematic weeds like sweet clover or to kill woody vegetation that has invaded prairies. These summer burns would have occurred historically through lightning strikes or indigenous fires. Summer burns are small units, usually less than one acre, but they allow us to knock back a large area of weeds that would take forever to pull by hand. Units are kept small to avoid harming nesting birds, insects, and mammals.

Burning the savanna around the kettle pond. Photo by Drew Harry

Burning the savanna around the kettle pond. Photo by Drew Harry

Our burn rotations can vary, but typically a unit will not go more than three years without being burned. As these prairie restorations progress and become more mature, it's possible that they won't need to be burned as frequently. There's also a topographic difference in the need for burning. Lowland areas like Martin and Tillotson Prairies need to be frequently burned every year or two or willows and aspen will invade. Dry upland knolls can go longer without being burned as woody vegetation is less likely to become invasive there. Upland woodlands and savannas have a rather longer return interval on fire, but as we are re-introducing fire to these systems, it's best to burn every other year to suppress unwanted woody invasion.

The General’s first fire in perhaps a century. Photo by Drew Harry

The General’s first fire in perhaps a century. Photo by Drew Harry

The big bur oak overlooking the kettle pond, The General, has not seen fire for decades and possibly over a century. Since European settlement the area was grazed and fire was suppressed. Once grazing stopped, invasive brush like buckthorn and honeysuckle moved in and eliminated the grasses and forbs which would have helped carry a fire, along with the oak leaf litter. Now that we've restored this area by cutting the invasive brush we have returned the fire regime as well. You can see in the picture that the flames, backed by the wind, are only a foot or two off of the ground--these savanna burns tend to creep along fueled mainly by oak leaves, compared to the dramatic 15 foot tall flames of a prairie headfire.

Headfires in the Ledge Uplands South. Photo by Drew Harry

Headfires in the Ledge Uplands South. Photo by Drew Harry

Obviously, the variables of fire are numerous, and it takes a lot of work to plan and implement a prescribed burn. However, done correctly, these burns are safe and an important cultural aspect of prairie restoration. A volunteer a week ago commented that the fire on the landscape felt right, even instinctual, and I think there's something to that. My favorite moments of a burn are when we've accomplished the back burn and have blackened a solid portion of the prairie. Then, we can more or less relax as we watch the head fire, pushed by the wind, as it voraciously consumes the prairie and crashes safely into the area that we've already burned.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Winter Update at Faville Grove

Sunset on the Laas land, Faville Grove Sanctuary. Photo by Drew Harry

Sunset on the Laas land, Faville Grove Sanctuary. Photo by Drew Harry

It's been a busy time here at Faville Grove, as always. We finished collecting seed in November, with over 300 species collected! On November 25th we burned 110+ acres on Martin and Tillotson prairies; a very successful burn. With the help with lots of volunteers, we mixed the seed into dry-mesic, wet, wet-mesic, and woodland/savanna mixes. The day before planting we conducted a good burn on the woods north of Hwy 89. And on December 2nd we planted 22.75 acres, a huge undertaking with about 50 volunteers, on a gorgeous and sunny day.

David Musolf and Roger Packard (Faville Grove Sanctuary resident managers) brought in the New Year with one brave guest on the morning's hike (-15 degrees), while I was in Miami at Everglades National Park.

I'm thankful to you, all of our volunteers, who helped make 2017 a success.

This winter, we'll be hosting brush cutting work parties every Wednesday through February from 9am-noon. There will also be parties 9-noon on Saturdays: January 13, 20 and February 3, 10.

A view of the savanna above the pond where extensive cutting has taken place. Photo by Drew Harry

A view of the savanna above the pond where extensive cutting has taken place. Photo by Drew Harry

We'll meet at Buddy's place (N7710 Highway 89, Waterloo) and go from there. You can contact me beforehand to make sure we're going out, but it's not necessary. We've been cutting on the former Laas property, working around a small wooded area rimming the pond. We'll have a burn pile going each day for respite from the cold. It's been great progress, and every day has been rewarding to open up the vistas.

Join us out here!

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Red Fox

Foxes are wily and sly creatures in literature—clever and dishonest. In Aesop's fables, a fox tries to eat grapes but can't reach them, proclaiming the grapes sour. The dishonest fox will not admit defeat, marking the origin of “sour grapes.”

Photo by KegRiver, Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by KegRiver, Flickr Creative Commons

In Disney's Fox and the Hound, a fox named Tod undergoes a number of missteps in a coming-of-age story where he becomes enemies with his childhood hunting dog friend. Here the film makes clear that it is the humans who mistrust and hunt the fox, rather than anything inherent to the fox.

Werner Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man depicts a man (Timothy Treadwell) perhaps too trusting of nature. Treadwell interacts with a family of foxes, and Herzog narrates: “as a filmmaker sometimes things fall into your lap which you couldn't expect, never even dream of. There is something like an inexplicable magic of cinema.” The foxes dance around Treadwell and steal his hat as he curses them back to their den, where the hat stays.

Perhaps the fox is all of the above: cunning, playful, innocent, and sly.

Photo by bzd1, Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by bzd1, Flickr Creative Commons

There's much to be said of playful red foxes. Charles Long, in The Wild Mammals of Wisconsin, calls fox kits at the den “an aesthetic blessing of nature.” In Wisconsin, red foxes (one of two native foxes, the other the gray fox) are breeding throughout the state.

By March or April, litters of 4-5 kits occupy dens on sand or gravel substrate. Dens may be adopted and modified from badger of woodchuck burrows. Foxes may even co-habituate a den with a badger or another family of foxes.

Foxes are capable of thriving in fragmented landscapes and as such have an excellent status throughout the state. Between woodland, grassland, stripcover, pasture, and fencerow, foxes will make a den and a home range. Ranges can cover an impressive 1,200 acres (about the size of Faville Grove), but in ecologically diverse areas will range from 142-400 acres (more likely at Faville Grove given the diversity of habitats). Territories will be patrolled about every other week and are defended with scent (urine). If a standoff ensues, chasing is most likely and physical altercation is extremely rare.

Michigan and Wisconsin are said to have some of the highest fox harvests in the world. Trappers caught 4,708 foxes in 2014 with an average pelt price of $20.81. Trapping is a supplemental source of income for farmers, trappers, landowners, and Native Americans throughout the state. The highest recorded harvest of red foxes occurred in 1960 at 54,090 foxes. The average pelt price that year was $10.57 when adjusted for inflation. 1978 saw the highest average price ($248.18) and a harvest of 32,581 foxes.

Red foxes eat about five pounds of food per day and will cache food for later consumption, marking the area of cached food with urine. Foxes are opportunistic and will eat almost anything, but frequently feed on rabbits, voles, and mice.

Come visit Faville Grove this winter after a fresh snowfall and look for fox tracks, among the many other mammals and birds leaving signs of their presence. We've been seeing fox, muskrat, squirrel, otter, deer, rabbit, and possibly weasel tracks throughout the sanctuary. Tracking is an excellent way to learn the ecology and habits of a species. Fox tracks have four toes on both the fore and hind prints and are about two inches wide. About a week ago, I stumbled upon a red fox running away from me, barking as it ran. Following the tracks was a mesmerizing experience, like reading a journal entry in some long-forgotten language.

You can visit the sanctuary at any time, or join us on Feb. 13 for our Midwinter Snowshoe field trip!

By Drew Harry, Faville Grove Land Steward