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Fire Time! (What Time is it in Nature)

January 22, 2015

Today was the day for the annual prairie burn at Prairie Ridge.  I’ve written about the burn in the past so I’m not going to go into a whole lot of detail here, but the prairie is currently broken up into three sections.  Each year one is burned, another is mowed, and the third is left alone.  Burning and mowing mimic processes that occur in naturally occurring prairies, burns set by lightning and people and grazing by large mammals, and are essential processes for maintaining prairie health.  In a nutshell, prairie grasses are well adapted to fire and grazing, but other plants that encroach into prairielands are not.  When a fire rips through a prairie, the prairie grasses will regrow easily from their deep roots and seeds stored underground while most of the other plants will die.  Our burn helps us keep out invasive plants, control the spread of trees into the prairie, control blackberry growth, and replenish soil nutrients.

Prairie on fire

This year, we burned the section of prairie opposite the lawn from the Outdoor Classroom.  People can view the fire in this section from the safety of the classroom, so we invited the public and ended up with about 60 people who came to watch our burn boss, Brian Hahn, and other controlled burn experts from the NC Forest Service set the prairie ablaze.  Using drip torches, they carefully and methodically burned small patches of grass as our visitors cheered them on from the classroom.  We also had interpretive materials and staff on hand to answer questions while the fire was going this year, so it ended up being a great educational event!

Setting the fireMost of the visitors left shortly after the first section of prairie was burned, but we had a second burn this year as well.  If you’ve been out to Prairie Ridge recently, you may have noticed the huge mowed area beyond the pond.  That area is being prepared for planting and will be seeded with prairie grasses this year.  The area was mowed and herbicides were applied to kill the roots so the plants couldn’t grow back.  Today that entire section was burned to kill anything that’s left and prepare the soil for planting, essentially giving us a blank slate to work with.  We’ll plant prairie grasses and wildflowers in the burned area, so look for a whole new section of prairie stretching from the area between the pond and Edwards Mill Road all the way down to the new entrance off the Reedy Creek Greenway this summer!

BitternFor all you American Bittern watchers and lovers who were worried about the impact of the burn on everyone’s favorite resident bird: the Bittern WAS on the grounds during the burn.  However, we saw him (or her) fly from the larger pond to the smaller pond as the fire approached and he appears none the worse for wear overall.  Only time will tell, but I’d bet he’ll stick around the rest of the winter and will be largely undeterred by the burn.

You’ll notice huge areas of charred grasses on the Prairie Ridge grounds over the next few weeks, but they’ll green up again sooner than you might expect.  Even though the prairie might not look very exciting for a couple of months, now is actually a great time to visit!  The huge open areas created by the burn are popular with ground foraging birds, so you can often see large flocks of American Robins, Red-winged Blackbirds, and non-native European Starlings feeding in the burned patches.  Small mammals are easy to spot as they dash across the bare fields, and are much easier to see than normal.  This also attracts birds of prey, so look for Red-tailed Hawks and other raptors flying over the burned areas for the next few weeks.  If you’re really lucky, you might see a Black Rat Snake hunting among the ashes!  It might be winter and things might be rather dead at this time of year, but the burn draws animals out temporarily.  That makes now one of the best times to visit all winter, so come on out and see what you can find in our newly burned fields!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)

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