Spaddadock Pond I: Design

All summer Justin and I have been planning, on rainy days and during off times, a wetland planting for a small pond dug out for fill about ten years ago. Since all of the topsoil was removed, wetland vegetation has been slow to take hold. The pond is right next to a running trail that runs through the Tinker Air Force Base Urban Greenway. The goal is to establish plants around the pond that will take care of themselves, improve the wildlife value of the pond, and look great when John takes people on tours. This last one was especially important because the pond is in the first section of the greenway, which is meant to serve as a model and a demonstration.

We started by coming out with a species list, generated by looking through native plant nursery catalogues, wildflower guides, and wetland rehabilitation guides that were lying around the office. Very early on we realized that we were coming up with an enormous number of species, more than we could ever use on the site. So, we tightened up our criteria and started eliminating species. For starters, we got rid of any plant that was not native to the central portion of Oklahoma, the Central Great Plains. Since our pond was in the sun, we got rid any species that would wilt in high sunlight. Plants that need rich organic soils were the next to go, since our soils were anything but. This went on for a while until we arrived at a list that was almost manageable, and with nothing else to eliminate, we just went through and kept the species we liked aesthetically.

Once we had our plant list, it was time to decide where to put what, which turned out to be more complicated than I would have ever expected. Much to John and Justin's amusement, I made like 30 different versions of each of the drawings, and finally produced the three phases below:

In Phase I, which we planted today, all the aquatic and emergent vegetation was
planted, mostly because its so dry in the summer so the only plants we could put in
the ground were those that "had their feet wet."

In Phase II, to be planted this fall, we added all the shore plants around
the pond to give it a finished look. We also added two trees, shown as circles, a cottonwood
(male so as not to bother people's allergies to the cottony seeds) and a redbud.
One surprising thing we had to consider was the height of the plants, since we
don't want to put tall plants right in front of the trail, where they would block
the view of the pond and bother runners by leaning into the trail.

In Phase III, to be planted this fall or later as time/money allows, we focused
on an intermittently flo0ded area that flows into the pond. We added several more
solid single-species stands, as well as two "Mixed" areas. The Wet Mix is meant to
be a sort of seed dump, where any extra seed from the other zones is planted to
see what takes. The Sun Mix is meant to connect the area to the rest of the reserve.

An environmentalist's dream, an airstrip's nightmare

Today Justin and I tooled around with Clark and Kenny, the USDA wildlife management guys whose job it is to keep birds and other animals away from planes on the airstrip here at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. During the summer business is rather slow, so when we went on the airstrip we just chased a couple of birds off the runway in the truck. Later, we got to fire off a couple of rounds on the pop-gun that they use to scare bigger flocks (with a little shotgun reinforcement once in a while). Apparently its not legit to use what Kenny termed "redneck radio talk." Words like "10-4," "over and out," and "roger that" are among those excluded from official Air Force parlance. So, as he takes his finger off the radio, Clark turns to Justin and says: "10-4 bubba, over and out."

As I said, summer is the slow season, so we took a little drive. Clark told us about an egret population that gave them quite a bit of trouble a while back, with a few thousand birds on the runway and nothing he could do to get rid of them. Since egrets are migratory, they're protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918! In terms of environmental regulation, it might has well have happened at the beginning of time. Originally between the US and Great Britain (i.e. Canada), the act has since been expanded to include Mexico, Japan, and Russia. Its a pretty strong law banning the ability of people to
"pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, attempt to take, capture or kill, possess, offer for sale, sell, offer to purchase, purchase, deliver for shipment, ship, cause to be shipped, deliver for transportation, transport, cause to be transported, carry, or cause to be carried by any means whatever, receive for shipment, transportation or carriage, or export, at any time, or in any manner, any migratory bird, included in the terms of this Convention . . . for the protection of migratory birds . . . or any part, nest, or egg of any such bird."
So basically it says don't do anything to mess with these birds. Personally I think the law is incredibly awesome, but of course Clarke and Kenny don't feel that way. The egrets establish rookeries, basically huge breeding colonies, for several years at a time, but don't seem to be terribly picky about coming back to the same place if the habitat changes. Interestingly, they seem to really like small patches of forest surrounded by houses. Maybe they can see predators better, maybe the houses shield them from the wind, maybe its a fluke since N=2 so far. Anyway since he couldn't mess with the birds while they were around, Clarke decided to modify their habitat while they were gone and get them to pick a new spot to breed. Since they like rather dense forest, Clarke thinned it out, turning it into more of a field with some trees than a patch of woods.

When the birds came back that summer, they moved on to a different place far enough away from the base that they are no longer a problem. Having nothing better to do and with no animals on the airstrip, we headed out to see the new location. Again showing their preference for areas right next to housing developments, the birds have colonized a tiny patch of woods surrounded by apartments. Walking in and seeing the thousands of birds was an impressive sight, and an even more impressive smell! The birds were constantly chattering away, creating a cacophony that you had to shout over to be heard, even across the car. Justin got out of the car and got some pretty amazing shots:

Look Closely, and you'll see that this picture is full of egrets!

It wasn't all egrets, though. Here's a small heron joining the rook.

In this individual shot, the egret looks a bit pretentious, or maybe majestic. I report, YOU decide.

Someday I'll get caught up on these posts... :)

* Source: Migratory Bird Treaty Act
Photo Credit: The Radio pic came from

Tallgrass Prairie Preserve!

Justin, John and I visited the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in northern Oklahoma today*. The preserve is the largest protected prairie remnant in the world. I assumed it was a national or at least a state park, but it turns out the whole thing is run by the Nature Conservancy! We met with Bob Hamilton (in between Justin and I in the picture below), basically the ecosystem manager of the preserve. He has been working with the preserve since before it started in 1989, so the Prairie is basically his baby.

As soon as we got in, we experience what happens when two incredibly talkative ecosystem managers (Bob and John) get together... just about 2 hours of introductory conversation! Fortunately it was actually quite interesting, with Bob describing to us the process of setting up and starting up the reserve and managing the huge Bison herd on the site. One of the main things that prairie ecosystems need in order to sustain themselves is disturbance, and Bob explained to us that in this area, disturbance has historically come from a combination of grazing animals like Bison and human induced fires. I was surprised to learn that he doesn't consider lightning to be a significant source of fire. Bob has surveyed the area after lightning storms, and found that what little fires they do start usually die out after burning a small circle around the strike site. If it wasn't for humans, Bob claims, the entire prairie would be a part of the eastern deciduous forest! Talk about slamming down the barrier between humans and "nature."

To replicate this disturbance pattern, Bob uses a combination of Bison and massive prescribed burns. He started with a small Bison herd of ~500 and used the existing fences that were there when the property was bought to slowly give the herd room to grow. Basically, whenever the herd gets too big for the enclosure its in, a fence is removed and the herd allowed to use the next enclosure. The herd now has free roaming rights around most of the preserve and numbers more than 2000 head of Bison. The most amazing part of that number is that every year, most of the herd is rounded up for monitoring, medical attention, and science! I say most of the herd because apparently there are some very stubborn old bulls that refuse to be rounded up. In the beginning, the preserve used four-wheelers and cowboys (real cowboys!) to round the shaggy beasts up, but now they make the bison come to them. They use "Bison Treats" and a siren to attract the native cattle to the trucks, and round them up from there.

The other disturbance method is prescribed burns, and the Tallgrass Prairie takes these to a new level. We heard Bob describe a 400 acre burn as "pretty small." With just a couple of water trucks and some torches, these guys burn about a third of the 39,000 acre preserve each year! What I found really interesting was the interaction between the fire and the Bison. Each year, the bison find the recently burned areas and prefer them as feeding areas. After an area hasn't been burned for about three years, the bison lose interest in it entirely. The burn patches are chosen with a random center, and then a reasonable seeming polygon is drawn around it. I didn't see a single square on the burn map!

The preserve places a high value on creating habitat diversity by varying the timing and size of burns, and it seems to be working. By not doing any one uniform thing to the landscape, they prevent the boring, agricultural look of other rangelands, which are usually burned all at once or even worse, herbicided all at once. In the surrounding cattle ranches, the management style is to knock out anything that isn't a grass, because "If it 'aint a grass, its a weed." On the way in, we saw crop dusting planes doing just that, spraying a broadleaf herbicide from the air. It reminded me of agent orange and the damage it has done to Vietnam and Colombia's forests.

The Nature Conservancy has been trying to change all this, and is doing some experiments on alternative methods such as patch burning rather than full burns and spot spraying rather than aerial spraying. Both of these have been found to greatly increase biodiversity while providing the same amount of weight gain for the cattle.

The Nature Conservancy, long criticized for their sole use of parks as a conservation method, seem to have finally gotten past their "park" mentality and are now thinking about the entire landscape as a unit of conservation. In Osage county, where the preserve is located, most of the land is held by a few large landowners, including the Nature Conservancy, the Mormon Church, and Ted Turner. As Bob said it, "You have to own at least 20,000 acres or more to wear the big hat around here." This means the preserve only has to talk a few people into changing their land use practices, but it also means that if they can't talk one person into it, they lose a significant portion of the landscape. So far, though, it seems that they are making quite a bit of headway, getting their neighbors engaged in conservation.

Anyway, enough science, its time for pictures!

Justin overlooks the herd. From this point, the prairie stretched uninterrupted to all horizons.

A Bison cow and her calf nursing. Nature is so beautiful...

Well, most of the time.

*Note: I'm really behind on these posts, but I'm writing them as a diary anyway. Please ignore the dates on the Blog... :)


Man, I love flying. Its one of those singular experiences of modern times that I think people have become way too jaded by. When you're flying, you can see a great deal many things that normally you wouldn't see either on the ground or on a map. Developers can't fool you up here, you can see that they tried to pack as many houses as they could into their piece of land, that every house they built is an identical slice of the American dream.

The borders between one property and the next are clearly visible by the effect each owner has had on their land. One square is forest, the next a mowed field. A few squares form a golf course, pockmarked with sand traps. A big lake, clearly artificial, ends in a dam at the edge of the property line.

In a place as flat as Oklahoma, with nothing to curve around, the land is an almost evenly spaced collection of squares. Look away for a second to get a drink, and the plane will have
flown over the cloud line, blocking your view of the land but revealing a skyscape of blues and whites, tinged with the greens and browns of the land below. Sitting at the exit row, you can see the wing, floating and bending and bouncing its way across the landscape, reminding you that you're not just a floating head but a real, sentient being riding in a giant metal case. How does anyone sleep on flights?

Later That Night...

So after (actually right of the middle) of the powder tracking in the last post, we managed to get our truck stuck in the mud. The place we were tracking at is called the "EIG," a acronym that no one around here seems able to decipher. The EIG is a huge expanse of scrub and grassland separated from the main part of the base. Lots and lots of people come to the EIG to enjoy driving trucks, riding four-wheelers, and drinking copiously, sometimes all at the same time. The area has also become a dumpster for random large items, such as couches, jacussis, doors, and even piles of carpeting.

Now you can imagine how a place like the EIG might not the best place to be alone at night, especially if you're on all fours, holding a blacklight and carrying way too much equipment for one person. To avoid muggings, Rem, Rebekah, Justin and I were down there that night, takings turns being on all fours and still carrying too much equipment. We took Big Blue, John's government truck, with us to make things go a little quicker. It did nothing of the sort. As we were headed to track the third lizard, Justin and Rebekah moved the truck while Rem and I walked to the area where we'd last seen it.

On the way, we looked to the road (really just a series of tracks in the dirt) and heard Justin slam the truck door and utter something that wasn't quite a curse word. Rem and I looked at each other like "aw, shit" and walked over to investigate. Sure enough, the truck had gotten stuck in mud so deep and so invisible that you could step on an area that looked dry and sink to your knees. Each one of us discovered this independently.

We tried just about everything. We tried rocking it back and forth to pushing it to standing over a tire that wasn't quite making contact. We even tried digging the tires out by hand. Nothing worked, and every thing did seemed to make the truck deeper and us muddier.

Justin suggested we just ask Bruce to pull it out in the morning, so we started walking and called security forces for a ride. On the way, we came upon the piles of junk. We had to try it. We grabbed some pieces of an old door and headed back for a final shot, laying them under the tires and gunning it. Nope. We walked out to the nearest gate, covered and mud and generally miserable looking. You can imagine the reaction of the gate guard, who had not been told we were coming and in fact didn't even have the number for security forces, when four mud-covered kids arrived at her gate.

We explained to her what had happened, and she agreed to let us wait for our ride, retreating back to her little gate house. The security forces car showed up a few minutes later, and we rode in the back on seats that looked like they were designed to be easily washable, lest a belligerent passenger soil it. The cop car had plexiglass between the front and back seats, which made it difficult to understand the conversation that Justin was having with the cop while riding shotgun. Justin is forever calling shotgun on people, which is especially entertaining when its inappropriate, such as when he called on Clarke and Kenny in their own truck as a joke. It was a lively conversation, and I gathered that the cop's name started with a G, that he enjoyed drinking, and that he was not from the state. It was the first time I'd ridden in a cop car, and the circumstances couldn't have been better.

So what I'm saying is, I can't wait to tell my mom that I rode in the back of a cop car. Lolz and Goodnight!

Tracking Lizards!

We've spent the last couple of days with the Lizard team, tracking Texas Horned Lizards and doing miscellaneous wildlife monitoring work. Vick, the PhD student that leads the wildlife field work, has two separate grants. One of them is his actual thesis, which involves tracking and modeling the movements of Texas Horned Lizards, and the other is general wildlife monitoring work, everything from frog call surveys and turtle traps to camera traps for mammals. The way it works out is that in a given day we work on the Lizards and then do one "other" wildlife tracking activity. Rem, one of the interns on the project, said that by the time you get through all the different ones its time to do them again, so its a constant source of wildlife data for the base.

Most of our day today, which started at 2 PM (man that was nice), was spent tracking lizards. Each lizard has a radio attached like a backpack, with silicon gluing it down and a little collar around its neck. Its basically adorable. We use an antenna that looks like it came off of a hillbillie's roof and a walkie-talkie looking receiver to listen for the ping of the radio, which pulses every couple of seconds. The louder it gets, the closer you are, so its kind of like playing the warm/cold game I used to play as a kid (you're getting warmer, warmer, hot! ... and now you're cold.) After a couple of tries Justin and I have gotten the hang of it. Its really cool when you get to the end and you're really confused and then you just see the little guy in front of you and you're like "There he is!"

After we find them, we take a GPS point. We're also powder tracking some of the lizards with a fluorescent powder. When we find a lizard we're going to powder track, we cover the bottom of it in the orange fluorescent powder and mark the place where we set it down with some flags as a starting point. Earlier in the summer, the Horny Toad (Horned Lizard) team attached a little tuft of rabbit fur to the bellies of the Lizards we're powder tracking, so they hold more powder. So, not only are these poor lizards carrying a radio on their backs, they also have an unnaturally furry belly! Vick did get a picture of two lizards with radios mating, so I guess they're doing alright with it...

Anywho, once the lizards are powdered, its time to wait for night fall to track them. When we were out there, on our hands and knees with a blacklight, looking for the powder trails, and it kinda felt like CSI detective work! Where did the lizards go? Mostly they kept to bare ground and tried to avoid sticks and grass, although they did manage to lead me into a really thick gnarl of sumacs! Every time I thought (hoped) the trail had ended, I found more and had to keep going, for SCIENCE! So really what I'm saying is Science rulz.

I'll tell about the rest of that night in the next post, so stay tuned!

Saving the rainforest through sustainable forest products!

I don't normally post articles, but this one was so perfect that its hard to resist. It provides an overview of many different ways to make money off of a forest without logging, and evaluates the economic opportunities associated with each one.

Check it out here.