Sunday, August 7, 2011

What 160 Hours Can Accomplish

On yet another gorgeous day here in the Upper Valley region while many summer vacationers are soaking up the sun or taking a dip in one of the areas numerous swimming holes, a group of dedicated interns working for VINS, the US Army Corps of Engineers & the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park respectively spent the first day of August toiling on VINS' floodplain pulling invasive Japanese Barberry.

After root wrenching each barberry clump the entire shrub 
is hung in a nearby tree to ensure it dose not re-root itself.

What was the source of this self-induced torture? As part of a collective initiative to target the removal and control of invasive species along the Ottuaquechee River the recently formed Ottauquechee Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area (OCISMA) has outlined a series of work days for these interns to partake in over the next three weeks. Last week was spent at King Farm with MBR National Historic Park targeting a large buckthorn invasion, this week targeted a ~1 acre barberry thicket on VINS property, and next week will test our wits against a large Eurasian Water Milfoil patch located in Dewey's Mill Pond under US Army Corps of Engineers management. In all, these work days will amount to over 160 man hours donated to the never-ending effort to control invasive species.

For more information about OCISMA please contact Mandy Vellia, OCISMA coordintaor, at

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Meadow Diversity in Action

As the summer progresses, more and more observation in the VINS meadow is adding our understanding of the processes and creatures behind its beauty. By next year we will be able to watch how controlled burns and mowing effects the meadow and its inhabitants. While waiting on those findings, a few nuances in the data are already starting to tell a story of intricate natural relationships.

One of these findings comes from a careful record of pollinator and flowering activity. Every two weeks the kinds of pollinators visiting VINS and the kinds of flowers that they are visiting are documented. So far, peak blooming times (high numbers of open flowers) correspond to large numbers of pollinators out to taste all of the sweet nectar. This relationship isn’t surprising at all – more flowers mean more pollinators. However, it is in the way pollinators and flowers support each other in different parts of the meadow that is even more intriguing.

In June a peak lupine bloom in a section of meadow dominated by wildflowers attracted a variety of pollinators but as lupine started to go to seed in early July, the pollinators started to leave for other parts of the meadow. It turns out that wildflowers like Cow Vetch, Rough-Fruited Cinquefoil, St. Johnswort and Daisy Fleabane were all blooming together in another part of the VINS meadow mostly covered in grasses. As the bounty here started to run out, a spectacular bloom of Wild Bergamot again attracted pollinators back to the area of meadow dominated by wildflowers. In a way, the grass dominated portion of the meadow “filled in” as a main pollinator food source while flowering was down in the portion dominated by wildflowers.

What this means is that pollinators benefit from differences within and around the meadows they live in. The fancy terms that ecologists like to use to describe variety of habitat is “heterogeneity” – just meaning: different. And it doesn’t just apply to pollinators and flowers. More heterogeneity means more opportunities for all kinds of plants and animals – almost like a downtown with lots of different shops and shows; there’s a little something for everyone.   

As a matter of fact, VINS is currently taking part in the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), which uses habitat heterogeneity as a method to benefit all kinds of species – from birds to insects and wildflowers. As a part of the USDA, the Vermont Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) utilizes WHIP across the state to help landowners like VINS manage for wildlife in a responsible way. It is nice to know that a variety of species in the meadow already benefit from the diversity of others around them.  

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Diamond in the Rough

As I aspire to leave my mark on VINS and with the summer quickly coming to an end, I am using the time I have left here to help lay the foundation for what will be VINS' newest exhibit: a model backyard habitat which will be located at the site pictured below.

This project will benefit both the environment and local community in a number of ways. For local wildlife it will provide cover and food sources in the form of native flora that will occupy the entire strata of this habitat; from the canopy trees of the forest edge, to the stands of dogwoods and hawthorns, to the edible shrubs like raspberry and blueberry, right down to the wildflowers, forbs, grasses, and sedges. As tracts of forest are cleared or wetlands drained in the name of development, coupled with the relentless push of invasive species, an oasis such as the one being proposed are critical to the survival and propagation of our region's native flora and fauna alike. 

With 30,000 annual visitors to VINS, this backyard habitat exhibit has the opportunity to expose a large number of people to the benefits of reducing the size of their lawns and planting native species that are aesthetically pleasing while serving to sustain local wildlife and native plant populations. If each of those visitors where to convert only 10 sq ft of their suburban lawn to a wildflower bed or native shrub thicket that would amount to 300,000 sq ft of suburban lawn conversion annually! Knowledge is contagious and VINS is hoping to spread the bug about the importance and obtainable goal of increasing biodiversity in one's own backyard by simply choosing native plants to their region over exotic ornamentals.

Intrigued by what you can do?  Check out these helpful links.

Educated Homeowners blog on natives in your backyard -
Step by step instructions from the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) -
Publication from NRCS -

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Diversity of our Meadow Ecosystem

The summer is now in full swing and my first round of data collection is finished. It is one of several sampling sessions, which will coalesce into snapshots of the pollinator–wildflower relationship through the summer. The sampling process came with periods of frustration, elation, and the excitement of collecting this data in the meadow for the first time.

What kind of data am I collecting exactly? The type of data can be divided into two parts: pollinator activity and wildflower diversity. The first can be trickier than the second, mainly because pollinators (bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and others) can move quickly and plants don’t. Every two weeks I inventory pollinators present in the study area and which wildflowers they are visiting. I also record the flowers that are in bloom and the number of inflorescences (groups of blooming flowers) to measure the resources for pollinators in the meadow over time.

Wildflower diversity is the second part of the study and is simply a measure of the amount of species and their relative population densities. Both of these values together (what scientists like to call species richness and evenness) combine to create an index of biodiversity. The more diverse an ecosystem is, generally the more resilient it is in the face of adversity.

The central question behind this research project is: what management practice (controlled burns or mowing) will keep the meadow from reverting back into forest while maximizing the diversity of wildflowers and activity of pollinators? Timing also matters and experimental mowing and burning over the next couple of years will provide insight into what is best for the meadow at VINS and what may be best for landowners around Vermont. For now, I am off to the meadow to collect data for round two...  

Monday, July 11, 2011

To pull or not to pull?

As part of my research project this summer at VINS I have been charged with investigating invasive species ecology – how these species interact with the ecosystem they have invaded, as well as management strategies to minimize their impacts through eradication.
Exotic invasive species are managed because of the threat they pose to native flora and fauna by physically displacing native species. However this is not the only way invasives do harm to local ecosystems.  Some exotics like the stump-sprouting Japanese Knotweed pictured above, have the ability to alter the actual physical and chemical composition of soil.  Doing so disrupts the hydrology, nutrient cycling, soil microbial and fungi populations which all exacerbates the problems posed by invasives.

As the above picture illustrates, managing invasive species is not always effective, in-fact, managing an invasive species population never really ends. Seed dispersal of a plethora of invasives, whether it be by wind, bird, animal or human is inevitable. So it seems the same question must be asked, “To pull or not to pull?” Concentrating management efforts to the most sensitive areas seems the most economical, but if invasives cannot be managed everywhere are our actions fruitless?  When exotic ornamental Japanese Barberry still holds a multi-million dollar market share in the horticulture business (Lehrer et al, 2006) it would seem our attitude towards acceptable landscaping practices needs to make a change before real progress towards managing invasive populations can take place.

Works cited:
Lehrer, J et al. (2006). Four Cultivars of Japanese Barberry Demonstrate Differential Reproductive Potential under Landscape Conditions. Journal of Horticultural Science. Vol. 41 Iss. 3 (pp762).

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Summer is here!

Introducing John Loffredo, studying the ecology of invasive species:

It is true that all introduced species are non-native but only some are lucky or unfortunate enough (depending on your prospective) to be called invasive. Notice the tall golden-colored invasive Phragmites in the picture above.

The forests of New England are somewhat of a giant science experiment in that ever since the arrival of the European colonists 400 years ago they brought a nearly endless list of flora and fauna to their new home. The tradition continues today, and the consequences of unleashing such a great number of non-native species onto an un-expecting forest biome, itself no more than 5,000 years old, is still revealing itself to researchers.

To pull or not to pull is the question: will a non-native invasive species become naturalized in its new home? If left to their own devices will non-natives strike the same mutualistic relationships with similar partner species as they did in their region of origin? Is it really practical or a good use of tax-payer dollars to eradicate any and all invasive species from the forests of New England? These are some of the questions posed to plant ecologists today, to which I am only beginning to ponder myself…

And meet Ben Sweet, studying meadow management practices:

It is the beginning of summer and flowers are blooming in the meadow. Across the Vermont countryside clovers, yarrow, buttercup, lupine and a variety of other species are blossoming, providing food for some and beautiful scenery to the rest of us. As bees, hummingbirds and other pollinators gather nectar for food, they carry pollen from flower to flower, helping plants reproduce for next season’s bloom. Together they thrive off of each other – making an age-old relationship that is crucial to habitats around the world.

My research explores processes behind this relationship. Over the course of the summer, I will study how controlled fires and mowing can actually affect meadow ecosystems for the better. If timed correctly, both can help keep a meadow from growing back into forest, rejuvenating it with nutrients while still allowing pollination to occur at peak blooming times. The question is: to mow or to burn and, at what time? Today is my first day of data collection and the beginning of a path towards answering these questions – off to the field!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Meadows: more complex than they look

Well, the summer has come and gone, and Kaitlin’s and my research at the VINS Nature Center is winding down. My desk is piled high with plant specimens, data sheets, and leftover soil samples, and photographs virtually burst from the seams of my overstuffed hard-drive. Now is the time to examine all of our data, review some literature to help us interpret our findings, and propose management options for VINS’s meadow and pine forest. Our burning question is: How should VINS manage its meadow and pine forest to restore soil health, support plant diversity, further scientific research, educate the public, and benefit critters that hide or feed in these habitats? Based on a preliminary review of our findings, we have some ideas that we’d like to explore over the next 2 months.

Meadow Findings

At the foot of the path into the meadow is a sign asking the curious visitor, “What’s in a meadow?” When I first arrived at the Nature Center 3 months ago, my glib response was, “(yawn) Grass. More grass. Some flowers.” After 2.5 weeks of studying the vegetation in VINS’s meadow and visiting other meadows, I realized how short-sighted my perception was. Kaitlin and I discovered more than 20 wildflower species growing in the VINS meadow and even more graminoid (grass-like) species. Among the wildflowers, we saw beautiful orange butterfly milkweed, purple bergamot, three species of clover, hairy white oldfield aster, and birdsfoot trefoil. I used to think grass-like plants (sedges, grasses, and rushes) were boring, but now I have a newfound appreciation for them. Varying from yellow-greens to reds and bluish greys, carrying round or triangular stems, and bearing the tiniest flower-like structures (florets), some of which pop open when touched, these plants are marvels to behold. Take a look at the florets of a grass, sedge, or rush using a hand lens or microscope if you have the chance, and you’ll understand how clever nature is to have invented so many ways to reproduce!

The reproductive structures (floret) of a panic grass (Dichanthelium sp,)and a rush.

Kaitlin and I found that the VINS meadow has higher plant diversity than other meadows that are being actively managed (mowed). Much of this might stem from the fact that the VINS meadow was seeded with a wildflower mix about 3 years ago. But the diversity can’t solely be attributed to the wildflower mix, because we are seeing species at VINS that were not part of the wildflower mix. What else makes the VINS meadow so diverse? I think that it partly has to do with ecological succession (the process by which nature reclaims areas that have been disturbed by humans or extreme forces such as storms). Only 7 years ago, the VINS meadow was a sand/gravel pit, with exposed mineral soil at the surface. After land is cleared, when plants start to take root again, everything is fair game- anyone can move in. The hardiest plants who withstand dry soil and poor nutrients usually move in first. They start to create micro-habitats (eg. some shade, better soil) that enable other plants to move in. During early succession, the land is at its peak in plant diversity. After many years, the plant species best suited to the site will survive, and the rest will die off, leaving a smaller handful of species. Being a young meadow, the VINS meadow is in an early stage of succession.

The other two meadows we visited had been agricultural fields for 15 years or more, and they were managed every few years by mowing and/or brush hogging. It is possible that mowing and brush hogging scatter the seeds of the dominant plant species throughout a meadow, giving it a uniform look with low plant diversity. Or, perhaps they have lower diversity because they are older meadows. But how do you age a meadow when you are mowing it every few years? Does mowing set the clock back, moving the meadow to an earlier successional stage?

(From left to right: VINS meadow, Pippin meadow, Grandpa's Quarry meadow. The VINS meadow had the greatest plant species richness.

One thing we noticed when comparing the VINS meadow to the meadow by Pippin Inn was that the Pippin meadow had more structural diversity. The VINS meadow is dominated by low-lying herbaceous plants, with only a few shrubs and trees starting to grow around the periphery. The Pippin meadow is being managed for small mammal and bird habitat, so the land-owner has maintained many shrubs and crab apple trees around its periphery, which birds can perch and nest in. A large patch of raspberry shrubs also serves to attract birds when the shrubs are fruiting. Landowners who want to maintain their fields can manage their fields to support wildlife; for example, they could grow staghorn sumac to provide birds with winter fruit; they could mow early in the spring then wait 65 days to allow grassland birds to successfully nest and fledge; or they could increase the forbs: grass ratio by changing soil pH to improve pollinator habitat.

Managing the VINS Meadow

At the VINS meadow, where there is little topsoil and few soil microorganisms, we wonder what we can do to help soil development. One strategy that we might experiment with is burning, because burning can help to release nutrients from plant matter into the soil. We also wonder whether burning is an effective way to control the spread of invasive plants in the meadow. The tricky part is timing the burning so that it kills off the invasive plants after they have spent their energy reserves but before they produce seeds. We wouldn’t want to burn so early that they have a chance to regrow with more nutrients at their disposal. Also, if you have many different invasive plants, each with unique flowering times, then how do you address all of them simultaneously? Addressing them all with one burn might not be possible.

These are all important issues for VINS to consider in its future management of the meadow. In order to decide what management strategies to employ, we first need to define our management objectives. All good land management must begin with clear goals, so one can choose the best strategies to move in the direction of those goals. Do we want to increase plant diversity? What plants do we want the meadow to favor- native grasses, native wildflowers, flowers native to Vermont, or all plants, including those from Europe that have been naturalized (ie. non-native but not invasive)? What animals do we want to support- deer, grassland birds, small mammals, pollinators, or microorganisms? My next step is to outline several different management/research options and their possible effects on the meadow flora and fauna, so VINS can choose the strategies that best fulfill their management objectives. Coming up next: the results of our small mammal survey and our quest to discover the hidden potential of the pine forest (could it have been a red oak-black oak forest 300 years ago?).