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“Shine”

Watch our stewardship in action at the Sam Shine Foundation Preserve.

by Kate Hammel, Communications Director

In September, Sycamore began construction at the Sam Shine Foundation Preserve in Monroe County to restore over 60 acres of fallow farm fields back to thriving wetland habitat. This is part of Sycamore’s largest series of habitat restoration projects ever undertaken, which also includes planting over 50,000 native trees in and around the preserve, seeding in native wildflower meadows, and planting thousands of native plant plugs grown in our Native Plant Nursery from local genotype seed we harvested nearby.

In 2015, Sycamore purchased 339 acres of farmland for habitat restoration along Beanblossom Creek in Monroe County with generous support from the Sam Shine Foundation. We were honored to name the property the Sam Shine Foundation Preserve. Their $1 million gift leveraged even more donations from the Laura Hare Charitable Trust, Efroymson Family Fund, Bicentennial Nature Trust, the Ropchan Foundation, and many other local individuals and businesses.

Strategic land purchases in 2017 expanded the Sam Shine Foundation Preserve with funding from the Bicentennial Conservation Trust and Sycamore supporters, adding 115 more acres to help create a natural corridor of protected habitat. And in 2022, we added 166 more acres by purchasing land to expand the preserve and connect it to Fix-Stoelting Preserve.

The Sam Shine Foundation Preserve is now part of 814 contiguous acres owned by Sycamore that protect nearly 7 miles of the banks of Beanblossom Creek. It is our largest contiguous nature preserve complex in the Beanblossom Creek Conservation Area, which we fondly call the “Shine Complex.” Sycamore is in the process of restoring hundreds of acres of habitat at the Shine Complex in a series of large-scale restoration projects made possible by the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and many other partners and supporters. At the time it was awarded in 2020, it was the largest active habitat restoration project that EQIP had approved in Indiana.

Take a virtual tour of our wetland construction at the Shine Complex. (Watch on YouTube).

Last year, we began by restoring habitat on a 10-acre farm field at Fix-Stoelting Preserve in the Shine Complex. We restored about three acres of farm fields to wetland habitat, blocking drain tiles and excavating ground with Stanger Excavating to create year-round shallow pools.

In 2022, Sycamore staff and volunteers grew over 7,000 herbaceous plant seedlings in our new Native Plant Nursery from locally-harvested seed. We planted many of these seedlings at Fix-Stoelting Preserve. In 2023, we expanded our nursery with funding from our first Spring Plant Sale and grew 10,000 more plants for habitat restoration. The majority will be planted at the Sam Shine Foundation Preserve this fall.

See volunteers collect native seeds at Shine for our Native Plant Nursery. (Watch on YouTube)

We also planted 38,000 native trees at the Shine Complex and seeded in native wildflowers with Habitat Solutions.

To measure the impact of these restoration projects, Sycamore is partnering with the Indiana DNR to monitor wildlife and habitat. Our Land Stewardship team has been assisting with surveys of reptiles and amphibians at many of our preserves along Beanblossom Creek and are conducting our own surveys as well. Reptiles and amphibians are considered indicator species, some of the first to be affected by changes in their ecosystem like pollutants. Because amphibians have porous skin, they are especially sensitive. Their presence is a good sign of healthy habitat.

Our new wetlands at Fix-Stoelting Preserve are already providing habitat for at least eight species of amphibians. In May, the Indiana DNR confirmed at least four species of frogs are breeding in the new ponds, and Sycamore has observed eight species of frogs, five species of snakes, and a snapping turtle at the preserve this year.

Our herpetological studies with Indiana DNR also include monitoring coverboards laid on the ground so snakes and other species can shelter underneath. To survey their populations, we lift the coverboards to count the species we find. At Shine and many other preserves along Beanblossom Creek, we are documenting healthy populations of the Kirtland’s snake (Clonophis kirtlandii), a secretive and burrow-dwelling species which is endangered in Indiana and throughout much of its range. We even counted 54 individual snakes in one day under coverboards at Shine in 2022, including a few Kirtland’s.

Find a state endangered Kirtland’s snake under a coverboard at Shine. (Watch on YouTube)

This November, Sycamore will join a global network of researchers and collaborators to track the migration patterns of tagged species. We will install a Motus radio telemetry tower on top of the barn at Shine to facilitate research and education on the ecology and conservation of migratory animals, funded jointly by the Indiana DNR’s Indiana Nongame Wildlife Fund and Sycamore.

The Motus Wildlife Tracking System (Motus) is a program of Birds Canada in partnership with collaborating researchers and organizations. This international network uses coordinated automated radio telemetry to simultaneously track hundreds of individuals of numerous species of birds, bats, and insects. Transmitters currently weigh as little as 0.3g, allowing researchers to tag and track species that are very small, like warblers which weigh only a few ounces, dragonflies, and even monarch butterflies. Towers then detect tagged animals when they fly past, with a potential detection range greater than 9 miles.

At Shine, our new Motus antenna will be used to participate in research projects with the Indiana DNR that track rare and threatened species and to help guide our restoration projects. The project was first initiated when the Indiana DNR partnered with the Missouri Department of Conservation and six other states to receive a federal grant to expand the Motus network in the Midwest, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Colombia. The project is tracking golden-winged warblers (Vermivora chrysoptera) and wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) to identify migratory pathways, stop-over sites, and timing to target habitat management. It is also tracking American kestrels (Falco sparverius) since very little is known about them and they are experiencing precipitous declines.

This will be the first Motus tower in the Beanblossom Creek Conservation Area in northwest Monroe County. “The barn’s high elevation and clear view of the area around it maximize its ability to detect wildlife that are wearing Motus tags,” said Allisyn-Marie Gillet, State Ornithologist at the Indiana DNR.

“This makes it a great addition since it will maximize our capacity to detect wildlife so we can better understand 1) species throughout their full life cycle and 2) how wildlife use Indiana during migration.

“I hope that putting up a tower at this preserve will foster research to help Sycamore Land Trust better understand how wildlife use Beanblossom Creek.”

Our research partnerships with the Indiana DNR, Indiana Academy of Science, Indiana University, Purdue University, and many others collect valuable data on the species that use our protected properties, helping us become better stewards of our land.

See footage from our “Shine Log Bridge Cam” and more wildlife cameras at Shine. (Watch on YouTube)

Sycamore staff are also using wildlife cameras to monitor the animals that use our protected habitat, tracking patterns of behavior to help guide our future restoration plans. We have 15 motion-triggered cameras installed at preserves along Beanblossom Creek in our Beanblossom Creek Conservation Area in Monroe and Brown Counties, including at our Sam Shine Foundation Preserve and the adjacent Fix-Stoelting Preserve.

“It has been a really useful tool for telling our story about why we protect the land we do,” said Land Stewardship Director Chris Fox. “It’s one thing to know the land is protected and that animals are using it, but to actually see them – the bobcat with their kittens going out and exploring, a doe with her fawns playing in the creek, beaver families working together on their lodge at Shine. It captures people’s interest and generates a lot of excitement and inspiration.

“It’s good to see these animals living well on our land. For me as a land steward, it really has opened our eyes to the diversity of animals that are there.”

At Shine, our wildlife cameras have captured incredible footage of the animals that rely our preserves – bobcats, river otters, weasels, minks, coyotes, owls, and so much more. Our “Shine Log Bridge Cam” watches a fallen log across a ditch, capturing hundreds of animals using it and even an Eastern box turtle on its slow journey. Our “Turkey Field Cam” records a busy animal crossing from the shelter of a big oak tree. Our “Shine Barn Cam” caught a groundhog digging multiple holes in the dirt floor of our barn to create a burrow.

And nearby, our “Shine Dam Cam” and “Shine Beaver Lodge Cam” continue to document hundreds of animals using this area after a hard-working family of beavers helped establish year-round shallow pools that support rich biodiversity.

Watch a family of beavers build their dam on our “Shine Dam Cam.” (Watch on YouTube)

In September, Sycamore began the construction of 60 more acres of wetlands at the Sam Shine Foundation Preserve with Stanger Excavating, using the lessons we learned restoring the new wetlands at Fix-Stoelting last year. We had originally intended to restore 80 acres of wetlands at Shine, but had to modify our plan after we realized a beaver family had already begun the work.

In 2021, beavers began creating a wetland on the preserve by damming a small drainage in one of three areas we had targeted for wetland restoration, identified as the “Marco 1 Area” in the project’s Master Plan Map developed with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. One of our wildlife cameras was already watching this drainage, which was being visited by many animals. Not long after the beavers placed their first mud and sticks only a few feet in front of this wildlife camera, the new dam transformed the surrounding area into a shallow wetland. Wetland-dependent species began using this area for the first time in decades, and we modified our restoration plans to allow the beaver to restore this area for us.

Original Master Plan Map for the Sam Shine Foundation Preserve.

Modified restoration plans for the Macro 1 Area, allowing the beavers to restore the area naturally.

“Seeing the beavers at Shine build their dam ahead of us, in an area where we thought we were going to do some really important work, made us pause and think: ‘Ok, they are already here doing some of the restoration for us. Do we really want to destroy that to do something bigger?’” said Chris. “We decided no. The cameras were instrumental in capturing that.”

Construction on the new wetland areas at Shine was completed in October, and these areas are already beginning to fill with water. Soon, they will become year-round shallow pools. We’ve installed new wildlife cameras in these areas to monitor the species that use the restored habitat.

We are also in the process of establishing over 100 acres of native grassland habitat at Shine, one of the rarest habitat types in the local area. With reduced mowing in the upland fields, we have already observed many uncommon grassland birds in this area, such as Henslow’s sparrow (Centronyx henslowii), bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus), dickcissil (Spiza americana), and a northern bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus) that made an appearance on our wildlife cameras this year.

We counted 122 eastern bluebird and tree swallow fledglings in our nest boxes in 2022, and even found some unexpected inhabitants – two frogs! American kestrels are now a frequent sight perched on power lines and nesting in the boxes we installed. We’ve also been monitoring a barn owl box we added to the barn, but no luck on a nest yet. Endangered barn owls depend on grassland habitats like the one we are working to establish here, and are one of the many rare and endangered species we are working to protect.

See eastern bluebirds, tree swallows, American kestrels, and even frogs using our bird boxes at Shine. (Watch on YouTube)

Next year, we will plant about 12,000 more native trees at Shine and nearby at Grandchildren’s Woods. Once this project is complete, we will have planted a total of 50,000 trees in just three years.

Watch our staff plant thousands of trees at the Shine Complex. (Watch on YouTube)

Sam Shine believed that the two best times to plant a tree were 30 years ago, or today. When Sam passed in 2019, his obituary asked people to plant a tree in his memory instead of sending flowers – preferably an oak tree, his favorite. Sam and his family established the Sam Shine Foundation to fund long-term conservation, preservation, and restoration of natural ecosystems while focusing on maintaining and enhancing native wildlife habitats associated with unique lands and waters.

Sam’s vision is coming to life on the land in our care at the Shine Complex and elsewhere on the 11,418 acres we protect in southern Indiana. The 50,000 trees we will plant in and around the Sam Shine Foundation Preserve are a lasting tribute to his memory.

 

This article is from the Fall 2023 issue of The Twig, “The Shine Issue”