Prescribed Burns

Fire–and what happens to plant communities after fire–is the core topic of my dissertation research. I’ve set up experiments in Sierra mixed-conifer forest and nutrient-poor but diversity-rich serpentine chaparral communities, and when my advisor discussed a project with prescribed fire in his study system in Kenya rangeland, I jumped at the opportunity.

For over twenty years, this project has been studying how the presence or absence of wild herbivores or cattle can affect this plant community–the acacia trees and understory grasses that grow on black cotton soil–and through them, the rodents, birds, and insects that also use this environment.

In 2013, the research team burned a section of each plot to test how past herbivory affected fire behavior, and how fire changed all of these interactions between wildlife, cattle, trees, grass, and insects. This year, we reburned all those sections to look at the effects of repeated fire, and burned a second set of sections in each plot to look at differences between fire in different years.

There were 36 burns total, each 30 x 30 meters. The whole process took our team of almost thirty people five days. Most of the crew was there not to light fire, but to keep anything outside of these sections from catching fire. In addition to the two main organizers and fire-lighters, there were people running two water tanks with hoses, people driving the trucks that pulled the water tanks, people running an even larger refill water tank–which was pulled by a tractor. Another crew wore backpacks full of water, to be able to spray any spot embers, and a final crew stayed behind after each burn, to rake apart coals or smoldering dung, and make sure all the hot spots were extinguished. Plus of course all the researchers recording temperature, wind speed, flame heights, bird movements, and tree survival.

For me, this project was a wave of experiences. This was my first time visiting anywhere in Africa and my first time working on a prescribed fire team. My original plan had been to arrive a week or so before the burning started, to have time to settle in and establish my own mini-experiment within the burn areas. However, due to concerns over the rains coming early, the entire project was moved forward, so we starting burning my second day after arriving. This meant that my first week I was trying to learn the system, help with the burns, keep ahead of the burning plan to set my experiments in the late afternoons or early mornings in the areas that would be burned the following day, and see and photograph as much nature and wildlife as I could. I didn’t have time to be jetlagged or tired from the 24 hour flight until over a week later!

From field assistants to coworkers, the team here has been absolutely amazing. Watching an unwieldy group of people with all these moving parts come together to accomplish all of these burns smoothly and safety was incredible. I’ve learned so much, and I’ve had a lot of fun along the way!

 

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Life on the Black Cotton

Mpala Ranch has two main soil types–black cotton and red soil–which host vastly different plant communities. Our research takes place on the black cotton soil, where the plant community is dominated by one tree species, the whistling thorn tree (Acacia drepanolobum). Acacias in general are known for having thorny stems and hosting mutualistic ant colonies. The whistling thorn trees have many long, straight spines on the branches, some of which have a swollen, hollow base, which ants can live inside. They also secrete nectar from the base of their leaves that ants can eat. In exchange, the ants may defend the tree against herbivores ranging from other insects to elephants.

The whistling thorn gets its name from the sound the wind makes when it blows through the holes in the hollow thorns. Other trees grown on the black cotton soil, including other acacia species, but the whistling thorn trees dominate. Underneath them grows a variety of grasses.

Many different animals use the black cotton, including wildlife (elephants, giraffe, antelope, buffalo, cheetah, lions), domestic herbivores (cattle, goats, sheep, camel), reptiles, birds, rodents, and insects. Each species affects the plant community in different ways. Grazers eat the grasses, often singling out their preferred species. Browsers pull leaves from the trees. Wood-boring beetles carve tunnels through the tree stems. Elephants will even rip up or knock over full-sized trees, possibly just because just because they find it fun.

These photos were all taken during the dry season, when the grass is brown and the trees drop most of their leaves. In a month or two it will all be vibrantly green again.

From the Porch

Within the large wildlife reserve and research center that is Mpala, there’s a smaller area where researchers and staff live and lounge. This area is surrounded by electric fences that keep out the biggest of animals–elephants, hippo, giraffe, buffalo, and lions. Even just in this small space, though, birds and smaller mammals are abundant (and often very habituated to people). Also, the front porch of the kitchen/dining hall boasts sunrise views stunning enough to make jet-lagged 4:30am wakeups a blessing.

Kenya, Day 1

I was lucky enough to be invited to join my advisor on his 41st research trip to Kenya. For the next month I’ll be living at Mpala Research Center, helping with an experiment looking at the interaction between herbivory (by cattle or wildlife) and prescribed fires. We flew in to Nairobe late at night, and the next morning drove about four hours to the research station. The drive itself was incredible, seeing the change from drier lowlands to wetter uplands to dry again uplands–this time in the rain shadow of Mount Kenya, which remained shrouded by heavy clouds. I loved the alternating patches of farmland with towns, bright colored shops and roadside stands. The road itself boasted newer cars and Landrover-type safari vehicles, overburdened motorcycles and brightly colored buses with catchy shoutouts to Jesus painted on their sides.

The research station itself is incredible, with views looking out at the mountain range and an impressive diversity of wildlife. In just my first afternoon here I’ve seen eleven wild mammal species–zebra (Plains and Grevy’s), giraffe (reticulated), bush hyrax, warthog, dik dik, mongoose, bush baby, hare, vervet monkey, and bush buck–in addition to cattle, donkeys, sheep and goats. I wasn’t quick enough to get pictures of all of them, but I know there will be a lot more to see and many more opportunities! Our few hours in the field ended with thunderstorms in the distance and the setting sun lighting up the clouds over Mount Kenya.

McLaughlin Natural Reserve, part 2

I couldn’t resist sharing more of the stunningly bizarre flowers I encountered while working at McLaughlin Reserve this spring, as well as some insects who make use of this space.

McLaughlin Natural Reserve

The last two years I have been working on a project at McLaughlin Natural Reserve studying the response of flowering plants and grasses to fire in shrub chaparral. The fire opens up the canopy, allowing for a large bloom of wildflowers. The reserve includes many areas with serpentine soils, soil from ultramafic rock with high magnesium, low calcium, low nutrient levels and often high levels of heavy metals, so only certain adapted species can grow on it. These serpentine regions tend to have many native California plants which have adapted over time to the harsh soils, often in very strange ways.

This year, the particularly wet conditions led to a bloom of many stunningly strange flowers in these burned patches. It’s been incredible to wander through these fields of bright colors, and to look up close at some of these strange flower forms.

NSF GRFP

That string of consonants in the title stands for National Science Foundation, Graduate Research Fellowship Program. It’s an award given to starting graduate students in the sciences, to fund their studies and research for a total of three years. This year was my third and final chance to apply for it, and I am thrilled and honored to have been selected.

Receiving the award itself is a huge honor, and a compliment to the work I’ve done so far. The financial support that comes with it enables me to spend more time focused on research and be more adventurous in the research I undertake. My main project is understanding the effects of climate on post-fire regeneration in the Sierras, through manipulative experiments and large-scale modeling. I will also be working on a post-fire regeneration project in chaparral, looking at the interactions between shrubs and wildflowers after a three-year drought. Finally, I am planning a trip to Kenya to run a short research project (yes, also potentially involving fire).

Applying for this award each year has been an incredibly emotional process, with a lot of insecurities and frustrations. I am very grateful that my reviewers appreciated not only my proposed project, but also my emphasis on teaching, photography, and mentoring as core aspects of my approach to science. I am also overwhelmingly thankful for my family, friends, and labmates who edited my drafts and supported me. This is a very helpful stepping stone, and I’m so excited for the years of work to come.

Fly away home

 

Once again I’m staring at a calendar, watching my final days on the Olympic Peninsula flash past me. As excited as I am to return to my main research work and life in California, this place excels at being hard to leave. I’ve never called Washington home, but these mountains, and particularly the project on the Elwha, capture my heart.

My focus on this project is the vegetation, but as wonderful as it is to see valley turning green and the trees shooting skyward, I’ve been even more amazed by the transformation of the river itself. Now that the dams are completely removed and the silt has washed down to the delta, the Elwha has come alive. Each section of fieldwork I wrap up is a bittersweet victory, as I prepare to leave this shining, shifting river, which after almost a hundred years of constraint, is finally flowing free.

 

Photo: Mt Shasta, taken on the trip up here. I am in fact not flying home, but driving for fourteen hours, past some very pleasant scenery.

Natural moments

These photos are from last September, a retreat that was hosted for the first-year graduate students in my program. We had a truly wonderful time getting to know each other in a setting where we ecologists are truly at our best–outside! Our weekend spanned forest and coast, and the great moments of sharing science got us started out on what turned out to be an incredible year.

As always, click on any picture to start the slideshow.