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Scorched Earth

This Wednesday Caroline and I got to see our first prescribed fire on the Refuge! We are still completing our wildland firefighter certification, so we could only watch, but it was quite a sight to behold. We burned about 400 acres on the north side of the Refuge, including a wet meadow which is normally too moist to burn. The ongoing drought provided excellent burning conditions, while the rains which came the next day helped prevent any fire from re-kindling.

There really is nothing like seeing one of these fires in person. With the dry conditions, much of the area was thoroughly burnt and blackened. When the sun is opposite to you it illuminates the plume of smoke and turns it yellow, as in the picture above. Occasionally we heard the bangs (far away from us) of small arms ammunition exploding in the flames!

During the burn we saw some unique animals fleeing the smoke: Chinese mantises (Tenodera sinensis). These are an introduced species in North America, and are the largest mantises we have at over 4.3 inches long. We saw two females and one male near the fire. They are very impressive, alien-looking things up close: get close enough, and you can see their pseudopupils, dark spots on their compound eyes that appear similar to vertebrate pupils and seem to follow you. These are really the locations where their eyes line up with the viewer's line of sight. At this angle they absorb light rather than reflect it, so you see a small black spot.

We also saw two common carnivores on the roads of the refuge: a coyote (Canis latrans) and a bobcat (Lynx rufus). Since the wolves and cougars that historically occurred in Indiana have long been extirpated, these are currently some of the largest predators on the refuge. In the time since wolves were extirpated from the eastern United States, coyotes greatly expanded their range eastward, taking advantage of the niche left open by the wolf's disappearance. Though the bobcat is common, it was unusual to see one sitting on a road at midday.

We have started work on two biological surveys at the Refuge. One is a survey of invasive privet (Ligustrum sinense), which forms dense thickets and takes over many forest understories and edges here. We are interested in the learning more about its occurrence here in order to learn how to manage it better. Most surveys have been done in the Southeast, so we want to know how it affects a different environment. It is difficult work when we have to drag transect tape through extremely thick, thorny brush. Best to wear long sleeves!

We are also working on a photographic survey of bumblebees (Bombus spp.) on the Refuge. Although a few species are still commonly seen, many species of bumblebees are in decline and have become very rare. The American bumblebee, Bombus pensylvanicus, for example, was formerly a very common species, but has declined 89% in the past 20 years. We hope that Big Oaks provides good habitat for some of these rare species.

Last Saturday was the first day of archery season at Big Oaks, which is always an event! We checked in more than 260 hunters starting at 5:30 a.m. It was a beautiful cool, clear day to start the season. On Saturday 21 deer were harvested: 11 does, 8 bucks, and 2 button bucks. Sunday was quieter (and colder), with only 3 does and 2 bucks harvested. We look forward to continuing this hunting season.


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Oct 21, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Very interesting and well written.

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