Saturday, May 23, 2009

Identifying the Invasives

When my focus shifts from birds to flowers, I consistently struggle with the same problem. When birding, there are many field guides to choose from, but all the books for Eastern North American contain the same birds. I only have to use one field guide for that area. When trying to identify wildflowers, however, it takes at least two or three, and even then I have trouble finding the plant in my photograph. One field guide proudly limits itself to "true" wildflowers. Another arranges each plant according to family. If you don't know what family it belongs to, good luck trying to find it. A third book wants you to look for the number of petals and their arrangement on the bloom, then look at the leaves and their arrangement. Even while trying to "key" a flower I already know, my analysis and the book's analysis of these features rarely match, leading to great frustration on my part. Just forget finding a plant not in bloom!

Invasives and weeds are seldom included in the field guides, yet they are the most abundant flowers to be found in most places. The number one clue that a plant is invasive is this abundance. Whenever you see a plant that fills a field, displaying its color over a large area, count on it being an invasive. These pictures are of Poison Hemlock, the same that Socrates drank at his death. All along Beargrass Creek this morning, Poison Hemlock grew taller than my head. Yesterday 15-20 volunteers at the Falls of the Ohio worked all day to clear weeds out of the flower beds, including anything that looked like a carrot, stands of red clover, and too many things I couldn't identify at all. My back hurt all night as a result. I guess it's not fair to equate "weeds" and "invasive" plants so lightly. Native plants growing where people don't want them are considered weeds too.

Are these plants part of the Dark Side of the Force? They can be quite pretty. Honeysuckle smells so sweet. Birds like multiflora rose hips and use the thickets for shelter. The tiniest flowers are intricate in design. Often, they look like orchids under a magnifying glass. I'm sure you all know that invasives out grow the native plants. Bush honeysuckle even changes the chemistry of the soil for its own benefit. It's hard for me to even imagine what Kentucky looked like without all these common plants.
Louisville's city parks were designed by the famous Frederick Law Olmsted, and I attended a presentation by the Olmsted Parks Conservancy group, which is trying to restore, enhance and preserve these parks. They cut down bush honeysuckle, then apply industrial strength Roundup to the stumps to kill the roots. We were surprised when he said that within a year or two, the native wildflowers started coming back up. The seeds were in the ground just waiting for a chance to grow. This is the most encouraging thing I have ever heard about the War against Invasives.

Can you identify these common invasive plants?

Last night was Froggy Night for the Bernheim volunteers, and we joined them on a trip into the research forest to a restored wetland area. The early farmers often straightened the creeks on their farms to provide more rich land for crops, eliminating the natural twists and bends in a stream. Look around your own area. If you see creeks that run against one side of the valley, while the rest is open, most likely they have been straightened. I didn't actually go into the creek, but our expert sat there for a while, identifying the different toads and frogs by their voices. Then he reached out, and came up with this guy, a Fowler's Toad. How could he tell? He looked at the number of warts in the dark spots on its back. Apparently that's the field mark to look for in toads.

My goal in life to to know everything (well, as much as I can absorb), but I'm not so sure I need to know how many warts are on a toad's spots!

Oh, yes. Here's a great birding note to end with. I saw a mature Bald Eagle on the wall of the dam at the Falls of the Ohio last Wednesday, and others saw him the next day. We have seen Eagles quite a few times this spring, and there are reports of a pair on an island a few miles upstream. We are all hoping that they may decide to stick around our area.

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