Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Of rare trees and flying creatures

The end of field season 2006 as we know it.
Five federal land offices were involved: Chequamegon National Forest, Superior National Forest, Sheyenne National Grasslands, Grand River National Grasslands, and Little Missouri National Grasslands. All were rare plant surveys. Species we encountered this season included Eriogonum visheri, Townsendia hookeri, Platanthera praeclara, Platanthera hookeri, Taxus canadensis, Cynoglossum boreale, Utricularia resupinata, Dryopteris fragrans, Carex vaginata, and Arethusa bulbosa. There are photos of all of these at our website.
The season extended into October this year, a welcome bonus of field work. Normally, at these latitudes, October brings stiff winds from Alberta that sweeps you from the field like a mother driving field mice from the kitchen, and the obsession with rare forbs quickly becomes an obsession with rare trees, particularly dead and dry oak trees, difficult to find where so many heat with wood. Maybe they should put the dead oaks on the protected list, then put exclosures around them to prevent overconsumption by firewood cutters, which might allow the dead oaks to bounce back, get a good population base, and maybe we could see some reproduction and their numbers would just take off.
A new client knocked on our door gave us a 3400 acre survey in tallgrass prairie in eastern North Dakota, on the Sheyenne National Grasslands. This was a first. Plus, it was for a federally listed species, Platanthera praeclara, or Western Prairie Fringed Orchid. Big plant, up to the knee, with a spiral arrangement of lacerated white flowers. The whole colony was in bloom when we arrived and we took it to be a heroe's welcome. I guess we will be working there next year too. The only drawback of that area is the wave of biting insects. This was a very hot and dry summer, as are so many of late, and the insects were driven underground or into an office environment- or somewhere, because we saw only a handful. But some of the old-timers say that, in years gone by, the sun would be darkened at midday by the clouds of black flies overhead. They say you would just point your shotgun into the air at random, pull the trigger, and thousands would fall from the sky. Children would run around collecting baskets filled with the critters and it wasn't long before they made a contest over who could collect the most. Like cattle to a watering hole, the young lads would stream into the village from across the county, all proud grins and Sunday best as they presented their baskets brimming with spoil. The winning child would be presented with a gift by the mayor and his parents would be honored at a banquet at the town hall that night. Kindling was heaped high beneath giant black kettles, the fires were lit, and the kettles soon roiled with the stew. The great Black Fly Feed was on! All were put in a most gleeful mood, the fiddles would come out, the legs would shake, the corn mash would pour, hands would slap, and a revelry would carry on until daybreak. Tumult indeed! Chores would be deferred, school would be cancelled, and the following day would be declared one of rest. Black fly season would last for three months in this region, and so too the revelries. This custom is widely recognized as one of the primary causes of the widespread crop failures, bankruptcies, and mass exodus from the Great Plains during the 1930's.