Michael Pearce

The Eagle's outdoor reporter highlights the latest hunting, fishing and wildlife news.

Habitat for the future

10/17/2010 12:00 AM

10/27/2010 3:18 PM

LEAVENWORTH COUNTY — New York to Honolulu. That's almost the number of miles I logged to and from our family farm this spring and summer.

Sometimes I stayed a few days working on habitat projects. Often I did the 2 1/2-hour drive there and back the same day, with 10 to 12 hours of work sandwiched between.

It's kind of a family tradition. Our farm is an easy place to love, largely because of its Ozark-like beauty.

In a corner of Kansas where glaciers once roamed, it has steep ridges that test the legs and lungs of even the most fit. One hillside is named "Four Stop " for the number of times most people pause for breath and strength between the base and summit.

Five kinds of oaks, hickories and walnuts often grow 3 feet thick and three stories tall. In the spring, the farm's awash in the lavender of blooming redbuds.

Flat boulders the size of small cars crown the ridges. A 12-acre lake that is fed by and feeds a curving, clear stream waits at the bottom of our steepest slopes.

Family roots run deep within every inch of water and woodlands. My grandparents came to a tiny house on then-remote land in 1942. Grandpa felled trees and carried rocks to make farm fields amid 180 acres between long runs as a trucker. Grandma and two daughters did everything from plow ground to pull calves when he was gone.

Taylor's Lake, their main legacy to the family, will always carry their name.

My folks built on the farm in 1985 and worked hard at upkeep as well as their normal jobs. They bought the place just before dad's death in 1997 to insure the family retained the special place for generations.

Improving wildlife habitat has been my part of the tradition for several years.

Though stately, our towering forest canopy had made for a sterile forest floor shaded out of productivity.

Shafts of sunlight from selective chain sawing quickly created patches of brambles and briars for nesting turkeys, bedding deer and songbirds.

My real magnum opus began on our highest flat in March, where 12 acres of brome had lived for too many years. Though it once provided forage for a few cattle, it offered no food or cover for wildlife.

War was declared.

Brome is tenacious and surrenders its roots grudgingly. Some parts required four spraying trips before dead grass met flame and the top-soil churned.

But after hundreds of hours of labor and about every dime we could spare, the hilltop is again wildlife-friendly.

About six acres has been planted back to prairie, with a mixture of seven native grasses and about a dozen species of wildflowers.

Tucked amid the new prairie are about six acres of clover, wheat, oats, forage peas and turnips to provide food through the four seasons.

Along the way were challenges, such as an unpredicted four-inch rain that washed away a weekend's worth of work in a few minutes.

Living so far away meant most work days were intense.

One weekend, I logged 30 miles on a four-wheeler going back and forth on just four acres spreading seed and fertilizer and dragging a homemade harrow.

Equipment failed and sweltering heat lasted for weeks.

At least I had company through most of the misery. My son, Jerrod, became the fourth generation to work the family's soil.

This summer a friend who's hunted the place since my grandfather's time built a shooting/wildlife observation house nicer than some apartments.

Family tools from wrenches to sprayers and four-wheelers to tractors were on ready loan. Meals were readied at a moment's notice or delivered afield when storm clouds or darkness threatened.

So far, so great.

This summer I flushed the first brood of young wild turkeys seen on the place. Minutes apart I saw a woodchuck and a rabbit, the first I've seen of either on the place in 20 years.

On his first trip to a treestand this fall, Jerrod saw a lot of deer and probably the largest flock of turkeys we've had on the farm in modern times.

Woodpeckers have set up home in trees killed but left standing. Brambles and brushpiles are alive with songbirds.

I greatly anticipate the future.

Maybe I'll find time to hunt, fish or bird-watch the place more than the few hours that are my current annual average.

No matter, my time in the process isn't for my personal time enjoying the finished project. Hopefully the day comes when a fifth-generation walks the farm with me, maybe watching a gobbling tom coming to calls or picking wild flowers while bobwhites whistle.

The farm's first two generations, I'm sure, would certainly approve.

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