We had a wonderful visit and field trip for my fire ecology class to Bastrop State Park last week. As you may be aware, Bastrop State Park and numerous residential areas around the park were hit with a devastating wildfire in September 2011. The fire burned the entirety of the Park, the last stronghold of the Houston toad and the western-most extent of loblolly pines. After several years of drought, the conditions were “right” for a devastating fire that was ignited by powerlines, fueled by bone dry fuels and fanned by strong north winds. The record-breaking drought and fire has caused a tremendous shift in the ecology of this place with the fire in most places so intense it consumes all organic matter. This included the seed bank. Alas, no regeneration of pines.
Nefarious creatures have taken advantage of the drought-fire, one-two punch. The oaks here historically were subdominant but resprout from their roots following fire. Pines are not so lucky and are going to have a hard time in the race for sunlight. Trees not taken by drought or the fire are being attacked and killed by bark beetles, invasive plants are moving in, and the abundant sunshine is no longer filtered by the trees and red imported fire ants are invading where they were uncommon previously. They like their habitats to be sun-warmed. My legs bear the marks of their stings from the knee down.
Homes have been rebuilt and in places the only evidence of fire are burned out-buildings, tractors and standing chimneys. This place is an ecologists dream. I am anxious to see the direction the forest takes as time passes. Until then, I can listen to trees falling and imaging the site without its current dense stands of pine trunks. I hope I can follow Bastrop’s recovery closely for the next 20-30 years.
The video I’ve included contains images of snakes and other critters we encountered on the trip. The copperhead and the eastern hognose in the video were found in burned areas. Good indication of the resilience of these animals and the animals they feed on. The chimney swifts make use of an old concrete water tank near the overlook at Bastrop State Park as a migratory roost. The audio isn’t very polished but I wanted to post something. Hopefully more will follow this weekend.