6 Miles Down, 69 to Go

June 25, 2012

This month marks the beginning of our 75-mile lakeshore trek to the Indiana state line.  And while hiking 75 miles in sand may sound like a daunting task, that’s the easy part.  Over the next few months, we will survey the Lake Michigan shoreline from mid-Allegan County to the very bottom of the Lower Peninsula, formulating a plan for eradicating any targeted invasive plants we encounter during our journey.

Thankfully, a baseline lakeshore survey was completed last fall, which means less time will be spent on logistics this season — we hope.   Since it isn’t feasible to do the whole stretch at once, we have to develop a plan incorporating “in” and “out” points for lake access along this 75-mile stretch, breaking our surveys into four- to eight-mile hikes.  Much of the property along the lakeshore is privately owned, which means we must also befriend some lakeshore folks to make this project happen.  I must say, the support from lakeshore homeowners and associations has been wonderful and is greatly appreciated.

Starting just north of South Haven, our surveys seemed to confirm our records from last year:  a couple small patches of Phragmites (an invasive grass, also known as Giant Reed) present and nothing more to worry about.  Unfortunately, as we walked closer to Van Buren State Park, we ran into multiple instances of Japanese honeysuckle vine.  These cases were documented last fall, however, we didn’t fully realize the extent of the problem until taking a closer look.  And this is where a leisurely walk on the beach turns into headache.

Whether or not you’re in the conservation field, you’re probably familiar with honeysuckle.  And if even if you aren’t aware of the honeysuckle vine, it’s very likely you’ve seen bush honeysuckle many times.  I’d like to introduce you to a less common, let’s say “cousin,” of bush honeysuckle — the Japanese honeysuckle vine, one of our newest enemies.  This plant has opposite glossy leaves and fragrant white to yellow flowers that occur at the leaf axils along the stem.  For those non-botanists out there, that just means you can find the flowers where the leaves meet the stem.  On younger honeysuckle vines, the stem is fuzzy, reddish-brown and twining.  As the plant becomes older, the stem becomes woody and the bark begins to shred, giving the vine a rough appearance.  The stems are hollow — a good characteristic to help identify honeysuckle if you are unsure.  The plant smells pretty good and even looks sort of attractive, so why do we want to get rid of it?

In North America, this plant has few natural enemies and vigorous root growth, which allows it to spread quickly.  This foreign vine chokes out all vegetation in its way, out-competing native plants and altering the ecosystem.  Larger vines can even twist around tree trunks, cutting off the flow of nutrients to the tree.  Every living thing that once depended on the displaced native vegetation must now go elsewhere for food, shelter, etc.  This results in a loss of biodiversity and ecosystem function.  So if you think you may have this plant on your own property, be sure to accurately identify it and consider controlling it before it gets out of hand. 

On a completely different note, have you ever seen two male mallards swimming and playing together as if they were mates?  We encountered what appeared to be a pair of males on the water during our most recent lakeshore survey.  And oddly enough, about 40 yards away was a lone female.  I was more than intrigued, so I did a little research and found this behavior is very common.  Males often leave the females during incubation period — how sweet, right? — and spend some time molting with other males . . .

Mother Nature is always surprising me.

— Kristin Schinske

[photos by Kristin Schinske]