Soil, Soil, Soil

This past week I went back to the Zumwalt to finish up soil sampling with Scott and Kaylee. One of the work vehicles broke down near Meacham, so the other crew borrowed the Suburban that we normally take into the field (the same one that had a flat tire the previous week). Thankfully, Dr. Morris (La Grande campus) let us borrow one of her trucks for the week.  It is an older manual, three seater truck; which her crew has affectionately knick named Lurch. Scott then met Kaylee and me in La Grande in our crew’s Impala. Because I have limited experience with manual transmission I opted to drive the Impala out to the prairie. And since the Impala has minimal ground clearance we only drive it up to summer camp. So, the rest of the time was spent squeezed into Lurch.

Scott checking on the contents of one of the emergence traps.

After we set up camp and got settled into the new (to us) truck we began finishing up all the soil sampling at the remaining plant transects, and then went to the emergence traps. From the outside, the emergence traps look like miniature tents with a wire casing.  But they are actually used to collect data about ground nesting bees and other various invertebrates. The traps are set out each spring and then collected near the fall. They are all in the same vicinity, but spaced 90 meters apart. Inside each of the traps are two plastic containers used to trap the insects, with one of the containers full of alcohol. In total there are 40 traps, and 38 of them were set out on the prairie this spring, as two of them were unrepairable. 

Carcass beetles found within one of the emergence traps. We were unable to collect any data from this trap.

This is also the second year Dr. DeBano has used the emergence traps, so the project is still in the early stages.  Scott stated that they weren’t especially successful with the data collected last year. Unfortunately, this year seems to be even less fruitful.  Of the 38 traps installed on the prairie we’ve already had about 15 destroyed by cattle so far. The cattle are a different breed than last year, and have been especially curious. The cattle gnaw on the wire and inevitably get their horns stuck. I’ve seen the wire casing thrown meters from the trap. Some of the actual fabric has been torn as well.  The cattle have also tried to consume the plastic whiskers used at the plant transects. While frustrating, at least the lost or moved whiskers are cheaper and easier to replace than the emergence traps.  Scott has spent countless hours constructing and repairing the emergence traps, so I do feel bad that he is seeing little reward for his efforts. In addition to curious cattle, some of the traps were also infested with carcass beetles or various plants.  The carcass beetles feast on the other insects, and thus make the data useless. And because the traps act as tiny green houses, they become a heaven for various grasses and forbs. These plants then crowd out the trap and non of the insects are captured in the traps.

Contents from one of the emergence traps.
Bumble bee in the morning.

Despite the setbacks, there was still a lot to learn. For instance, the traps are surrounded by a wire shell, and are then held in place with T posts. The traps that were rectangular seemed significantly less sturdy than the prism shapes. I’m not sure if this is from the change in shape, or change in material, but whatever it was it kept the cows at bay. The traps are also set out where Heidi Schmalz did a research project for her thesis a few years ago.  She worked on classifying the various soil types on the prairie, so our data collected over the last few weeks was used in part to recreate her study. Unlike the plant transects locations, where we purposely collected VWC and soil compaction a few meters from the whiskers, we collected data from within the emergence traps. This is so that we could get data for the exact location.  

The Milky Way from Summer Camp. Photo taken by Scott Mitchell.

The prairie continues to change each week as well.  While this past trip was exceptionally hot and dry, it was still considerably cooler than a year ago.  And as for biomass, all that seemed left was mostly yarrow, crispy buckwheat, and ventenata. We did see many more deer, elk, and birds of prey. And the coyotes were vocal as ever. There’s also still many bees roaming the prairie, and it’s quite fun to see them still gorging on the remaining forbs. I realized that I moved to Oregon one year ago this week. It feels like a far cry from western Washington, let alone Florida. It is truly special that I get to live and work in such a unique place. I’m also currently reading American Serengeti by Dan Flores, and his portrayal of grasslands is only helping to increase my admiration for the landscape and animals that inhabit it. This next week I will be doing data entry with Kaylee, and will then be joining Scott at Starkey and possibly the Umatilla River for willow identification. 

Harsin Butte and Findley Butte. Harsin caps out around 5,000 feet and offers incredible views of the Seven Devils and Wallowa Mountains.

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