Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Bronto at Work

One of my consulting gigs is to oversee management on some local conservation lands to benefit wildlife habitat. This week I completed one such project - the mowing down of trees and shrubs in several unused and overgrown gravel pits that were left from the previous owner. My role was to flag the boundaries of the areas to be mowed. Then the brontosaurus took over. This plant-eating brontosaurus, like those from the Jurassic Period, has a long neck and is a powerful mower of plants, but this one comes with an operator. Meet the bronto of the modern era...

This same equipment is used to clear vegetation beneath transmission lines. Power companies used to spray herbicides from helicopters up and down powerline corridors. Now they bring in the brontos instead, avoiding the widespread application of herbicides. The operators of these big rotary drum mowers  -- we worked with John Brown, Inc. the company that actually invented the brontosaurus -- are so good that they can mow around and leave untouched a single blueberry bush or a tall hemlock tree.

Here are two pairs of before and after pictures of the work this week. Our operator cleared nearly 5 acres in three different gravel pits in less than two days. Way more efficient than using a chain saw and at this size the trees have no economic value.

Opening One, before mowing

Opening One, after bronto mowing

Opening Three, before mowing

Opening Three, mowing in progress

Most of the land around this property is either developed or growing into mature forest. Animals that use clearings, old fields, thickets, or young forest are declining in the region, as their habitat is either developed or as forests grow back through natural succession. Human development patterns have squeezed wildlife into smaller fragmented areas and in some cases we have altered the pattern and timing of natural disturbances such as fires, windstorms, and beaver activity. At one time these disturbances would have created a patchwork of openings across thousands of acres; today we have roads, parking lots, stores, houses, and other paved surfaces instead of a natural clearing here and there.

Hence our desire to create patches of habitat conditions -- such as these clearings -- that some wildlife still need, especially when we can do it in an area that was already disturbed. Snakes will bask in the newly sunlit openings and turtles will look here for nest sites. Red-tailed hawks will now hunt for mice and voles lurking among the coarse mulch spit out by the bronto. Fox and coyote will hunt the rodents too. During future growing seasons as plants re-sprout and insects emerge, more animals will visit the clearings in search of food: deer, turkey, woodcock, bluebirds, sparrows, butterflies and dragonflies, among others. In 5 to 10 years, trees and shrubs will be big enough to attract towhees and field sparrows and other shrub-loving birds. Sometime before another quarter century goes by the bronto may return to munch on the trees again, before they get too big for the clearing.

I returned to the site on the second day of mowing to get a few photos of the bronto in action. I stood far enough away to avoid any flying bits of vegetation. I was mesmerized watching the operator manipulate the long-necked spinning drum with ease. Birches and pine trees alike disappeared in seconds. Here is a series of shots taken over just a few minutes. Watch the trees disappear.

Come spring I'll be back there to see what emerges in these sunny openings.

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