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Beaver pond restoration

Beginning during the second half of last year (2017), the water level began to rise in the lower beaver pond in the conservation area along Gully Road.  The beaver dam is located across Gully Road from the Guppy Falls parking lot, and the beavers seem to have been busy expanding it in both height and width.  By the beginning of this year (2018) the water level was higher than it had been since at least when the bog boardwalk was built, about 15 years ago.  The boardwalk and associated bridge at the upstream (northern) end of pond were already in need of repair, and the high water required an extension at the end near the picnic table to avoid wet feet.

By chance, two Eagle Scout candidates from Scout Troop 61 in Skaneateles were looking for projects, and we put them to work designing and building a new section of boardwalk and nearly a complete new bridge.  Although they coordinated their work, and had help from other Scouts, Bed Rudnick was the lead on the bridge construction and Haas Tehan was in charge of the boardwalk extension. They milled all of the lumber for the project and handled the transportation of the beams and planks.  The project was complete by the end of June.

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The high water had another consequence, and the boardwalk repairs made dealing with it a little easier.  The beaver pond has gradually become quite infested with over an acre of non-native Phragmites (European reed).  The entire area along that side of  Gully Road is a state-designated wetland, so we are required to obtain a freshwater-wetland permit from the state in order to apply any kind of chemical treatment to the Phragmites, and that’s just for the stems that are not in the water.  Any stems that are in the water are considered aquatic plants, and would require a second permit for any treatment to those plants.  Our plan was to chemically treat the non-aquatic stems and to pull the aquatic stems.  Before the beaver dam was reconstructed, almost all of the phrag stems were out of the water. Chemical treatment was the only effective option.  But now, almost all of the phrag is in the water. Water depths where the phrag stands range from about 6 inches to 3 feet.

This will have the effect of reducing the spread toward deeper water, and it will also make pulling more effective. Breaking the stems off at or near the bottom of the water requires the plant to expend more energy to reach the surface for light and air. Eventually the plants can be starved/drowned by this method. We are hoping that the beaver dam stays intact at least until all the phrag can be pulled, hopefully much longer.  For that reason, please do not trap beavers on the conservation area.

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Care must be taken in not leaving pulled or naturally fallen phrag stems in or near the water.  A floating stem can sprout a number of new stems, which can take root as it floats to shore downstream.  For that reason, all of the phrag is being burned on a small log-island as soon as it dries out a bit. The pile looks like another beaver lodge, so the answer is no, we are not trying to burn the beavers out of house and home.

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Jun 26, 2018: Bird, Lyme Disease Study

 

Kurt Gielow, a graduate student at SUNY-ESF is studying birds and tick-borne disease across rural and suburban habitats in Onondaga and Cortland counties.  He is seen here conducting part of his survey at the Skaneateles Conservation Area early on Tuesday, June 26.  Surveys consist of an observer recording birds along a transect for a standardized time period to estimate their relative abundance and population trends. He and his two assistants set up mesh polyester mist nets along wooded edges and within forested or shrubby habitats to capture birds. Upon capture, birds were disentangled and removed by hand, examined for ticks, and a small blood sample was taken. The birds were then released and flew away seemingly as healthy as ever.  The ticks that were collected were stored in ethanol and will be screened by a collaborator at SUNY-ESF.

Mowing

When I first started volunteering at the Conservation Area, I sought direction from the SCA Advisory Committee, whose members strongly and repeatedly stressed that the Conservation Area is “not a park.”  I took this to mean that it was not intended to be like a neighborhood park with playgrounds, large ball-fields and other lawns for sports.  But I could have argued that the Conservation Area was already similar in many ways to a lot of places called parks.  The SCA has features in common with some of our county, state, and even national parks.  It has woods and streams, a waterfall, hiking trails, a picnic pavilion, a camping shelter, an artificially-maintained fishing pond, some ephemeral beaver ponds, boardwalks that traverse wetlands, and parking lots with kiosks that contain maps, information, and a place to sign in, like many of those parks have.

But I understood “not a park” to be sort of a code that indicated that they were seriously concerned that the area would become less of a “natural area” and that “conservation” would no longer be the primary function of the area. The problem is that those terms (“natural area” and “conservation”) mean different things to different people in different situations.   Probably like many people, for most of my life, I would have considered a “natural area” to be one that is not maintained beyond the possible exception of keeping it accessible to the public (if even that’s desired).  I just assumed that “nature” would take its course, and given a reasonable amount of time, any piece of land would become “natural” and stay that way unless humans interfered too much.  But this can’t be argued one way or the other unless a common understanding of the word “natural” is agreed upon, or if that understanding turns out to be too broad, maybe an understanding of what kind of “nature” we prefer.

Any old farm field that is left on its own to “naturalize” in this part of the world will probably become a tangled mess of a limited number of exotic and invasive shrubs and vines.  Many of of us can find beauty in that kind of “nature,” but the appreciation is strongly tempered by knowing that the nearly-impenetrable thicket is not a viable habitat for native wildlife and that the invasive plants threaten nearby more “pristine” areas that are more widely appreciated as “natural areas.”  And many of us also find it harder to enjoy an area that can’t be walked through comfortably and where sight distance is limited to a few feet.  Much of the wildlife that we enjoy and depend on seem to feel the same way too.

I would argue that, if we can avoid it, we should not allow the bulk of our conservation area to continue to become an exotic dense thicket.  There are plenty of other abandoned agricultural fields that have or soon will become infested with dense and tangled exotic vegetation, in case you are looking for a place to hide.   One problem is that when we remove the “exotic thickets,” they tend to grow back very quickly from their stumps and seed bank, often becoming even thicker than before, much as a privet hedge would do if we were to keep it well trimmed.  In fact, one of our worst-offending invasives at the conservation area is the very same privet.

Another problem is that any native plants and trees that are released from the intense shade of the exotic plants are also made more prone to herbivory – rabbits, deer, and insects prefer the native plants that they evolved with.  So, two problems prevent the exotic “thicket” plants from being replaced by native plants and trees that we would recognized as components of our preferred “natural area:” (1) continued re-sprouting of the exotic vegetation and (2) herbivory of the native vegetation but not the exotic stuff.

One obvious solution is to treat a “natural area” more like garden. Continuously remove or weed-out the invasives, and where necessary, protect the natives, especially the trees, until they get large enough to be safe from herbivore damage and provide some shade to slow down the invasives.  This of course is quite labor intensive, and invasive plants vary as to how susceptible they are to cutting or pulling.  Some invasive plants will continue to return year after year, and without chemical help, our only hope is to keep them from going to seed each year.  Aside from the serious environmental concerns with using chemicals to control weeds, the SCA is public land, so uncertified volunteers are prohibited from applying any kind of pesticide, and volunteers cannot become certified without going through an extensive process of becoming a professional applicator (NYS-DEC-catch-22), so the application of any herbicide would be expensive. Often, the only practical method of control other than using herbicides is to keep the area mowed on a schedule that depends on which plants are present (both exotic and native).

Areas that we want to treat as meadow areas, with lots of grasses and sun-loving wildflowers like asters and goldenrod, are normally mowed about once every three years to prevent any trees or shrubs (native or exotic) from growing any higher than the herbaceous plants that we want to maintain. This somewhat replicates the occasional burning that was more common in the past, especially before European settlement.  Invasive trees and shrubs like buckthorn and honeysuckle will eventually be kept in check by such a schedule, but mowing more frequently may be required the first few years after larger invasive shrubs are initially cut.  Extremely-fast-growing invasive shrubs like autumn olive may need to be cut even more often. It is also recommended that fields be divided into strips or sections that are cut on alternating schedules to allow seeds from plants that mature at different rates to spread into sections that lack those seeds. The time of year selected for mowing is very important.  Of special concern is avoiding mowing during bird-nesting season. Presence of invasive plants like pale swallowwort require that infested areas be cut several times a year to prevent seed pods from forming, to keep the swallowwort seed from being spread by the mower.

Mowing large areas repeatedly might be interpreted as making the area look more like a “park” than a “nature area.”  And there are legitimate concerns about the air and noise pollution that a mower produces. Besides, mowed areas (lawns) are just not good wildlife habitats.  They provide little benefit beyond providing a good surface to walk and play on and whatever aesthetic value they may provide.  Any ecosystem services that a mowed area does provide are probably eaten up by the environmental costs of the act of mowing with power equipment, not to mention the fact that lawns are taking up space where a more ecologically productive crop might be. For these reasons, mowing beyond any desired walking and playing areas should be limited as much as possible, but it may be necessary in order to keep damaging invasives in check.