Sunday, January 08, 2017

Norton Month!

We're setting out on a snowy January morning to the rolling hills of New Haven and Hermann, Missouri in search of Norton. It is perfectly appropriate that January is designated as Norton Month by the Missouri Wine and Grape Board, considering the big, bold flavor profile of this, my favorite Missouri varietal. While every month for me is a Norton-drinking month, I'll work at incorporating more Norton collecting this January in honor of the designation.

The Norton grape was discovered in Richmond, Virginia as early as 1817 by Dr. Daniel N. Norton. Dr. Norton was a physician by trade, but tinkered in horticulture at a time when Americans were enjoying the hobby of developing new hybrids of shrubs and vines. Norton may have spent much of the 1820s propagating the Vitis aestivalis hybrid vine with difficulty, but by 1830, Norton's Virginia Seedling was available for sale in catalogs. The story of the discovery and history of Norton is best recounted through Todd Kliman's fantastic book, The Wild Vine, available at most public libraries in Missouri. Kliman spent significant time in Missouri developing this fun book; the sections on Hermann are particularly fascinating, a synthesis of great research through the State Historical Society and the treasure trove of Hermann's history museums and library. Because it's been so long since I've been to New Haven, I can't remember if the wineries there sell Norton or the controversial Cynthiana.

Several years ago, my friends the Norton Wine Travelers sent me prints from U.P. Hedrick's Grapes of New York (1908), one of a Norton cluster and the other of Cynthiana. For many years, well into the 1990s, it was determined by winemakers and horticulturists alike that these are two distinct grapes. According to Hedrick, "the botanical differences of the two varieties are not greater than might be attributed to environment, soil, climate and culture; but side by side the two grapes ripen at different times, and the quality of the fruit, and more particularly of the wine, is such that the varieties must be considered distinct. The distinction should be maintained, for Cynthiana is the better grape of the two." This age-old distinction between Cynthiana and Norton was tested in the 1990s at the State Fruit Experiment Station at what is now Missouri State University and again with genetics at Cornell University. It was determined through isozyme analysis and genetic testing that the two are the same. However, the debate stands. Gourmet magazine columnist Gerald Asher writes that "either the two were always one (as the Missouri and Cornell studies indicate) or, if different, then all present plantings, under whichever name...must have been propagated from one version of the two."

Regardless, both varieties have our Missouri native grape in the genetic stock, which makes Norton a wonderful addition to Missouri's agricultural landscape. The berries are small, and dark, and it takes a lot of grape clusters to make a batch of Norton wine, one reason Nortons and Norton dessert wines are often the most expensive wines at Missouri wineries. I wish I could say they were all worth it, but you'll have to find the ones you like on your own. Among my favorites are made in New Haven at Robller Winery. I'm pleased to learn that so many Missouri wineries are open on random Mondays in January. Winter blues? Nothing a trip to a Norton producer can't fix!

Friday, December 23, 2016

A Great Day for Birding

Setting out on a Thursday morning, a day of annual leave from my job to go count birds for my Audubon chapter, the dry air couldn't have been more crisp with a relative humidity hovering around 19%. I sent out a general interest question regarding rescheduling our annual Christmas Bird Count, an event that my Audubon chapter has participated in for almost 60 years, usually on the first official Saturday. Last Friday's horrendous road conditions and Saturday's forecast for another lousy weather day sent us to reschedule to Thursday, a nice clement day of 35 degrees, light and variable winds, clear to partly cloudy skies. So I volunteered to canvass the areas that the regular counters couldn't hit because of work or other obligations.

My first site in Section 2 North was a recreational lake surrounded by parkland but dotted with woodlands, and native plantings along the shoreline that follow the contour to the woodland edge. I truly delighted in the explosion of dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows gorging on buttonbush seed; every twig must have hosted one of these birds, almost too many birds to count. Unlike a lot of competitive birders, I didn't join the Christmas Bird Count to rack up species numbers. I do it for the fun, for the delight in seeing wintering birds, to observe behavior and to watch them in their surroundings, and to add to the winter bird data that my chapter has collected for all these years. At this first site I didn't have a huge species list, but the highlights included all of the mockingbirds! Five mockingbirds in the shrub layer, sadly eating bush honeysuckle berries, trash food extraordinaire with no nutritional value. 25 species including a flyover of a sharp-shinned hawk capped the morning at the first area.

Keeping in touch with other count circle members with the internet, I noted that they had not yet seen the golden-crowned kinglet for the circle, a regular species for the area. I spent another hour at the recreational lake and park complex and saw two! Check, 2N got their golden-crowned kinglets. We all missed geese besides Canada goose with all the frozen ponds and other factors which I may not be aware of. At the end of the day, I learned that even at the local wetland complexes we failed to document any snow geese, speckled bellieds, or even a Ross' goose. Bad day for geese, but a good day for woodpeckers. My house happens to rest in the middle of the count circle for 2N, so I was able to document my yellow-bellied sapsucker who hangs out on my cedar and the three red bellieds who visit my feeder everyday.

Count day continued and I was sent to an area south of town to visit a woodland complex, but on the road to the woodlands I saw my first-of-the-day bald eagle, some turkey vultures, and more and more blue jays. I realize a lot of folks aren't crazy about blue jays, but in recent years their numbers were way down due to West Nile Virus which impacted jays and crows alike. I've helped out with the Christmas Bird Count in various parts of Missouri for twelve years and have never seen as many blue jays as I did on Thursday. They really are beautiful birds.

Checking in with my fellow count circle birders, I learned that a nearby state park with a bunch of dead white oaks from the 2012 drought harbored huge numbers of red-headed woodpeckers, hands down my favorite Missouri bird. I have hand carved wooden ornaments of this bird, have secured permission to photos of this bird for professional interpretive panels where appropriate, have paintings of red-headeds and I tend to migrate to woodlands and savannas where this bird is prevalent, so it's nice to hear they're hanging out in a local state park. My count circle got all 7 woodpeckers and brown creeper by noon on Thursday.

The Christmas Bird Count is a national event, so anywhere you visit you may be able to hook up with the local organizers to participate. Our count caught the attention of local press who tagged along with our field trip organizer who published this article in the local paper about our count day. We didn't have our annual tally party-with-chili-supper so missed out on a lot of good camaraderie that we all really appreciate. Because I never ran into any of my fellow counters, I'll be driving all over town tomorrow to deliver rum balls and fudge to my birder friends and meeting at a local watering hole to finally tally all the results once they come trickling in. Keep those feeders filled and you may get a good glimpse of a pretty purple finch or a smattering of white-throated sparrows who like to eat food off the ground.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

117th Christmas Bird Count

After yesterday's miserable driving conditions increased the time of my commute by 2 hours, my Audubon chapter has made the decision to postpone our annual Christmas Bird Count slated for today. While the icy roads yesterday caused horrible wrecks, up to 300 in Missouri in one day (not counting all the cars in ditches), today's driving is expected to be influenced by a wintry mix and plummeting temperatures, which could result in even worse conditions. The decision to postpone was not made lightly; this means no chili supper, no camaraderie while we tally the birds we all saw throughout the area, but rescheduling the count to a weekday, possibly Thursday. None of my Audubon friends are fair weather birders, we've birded in snow and ice before with temperatures around 13F and lower, but the road conditions are expected to be horrible and it's not worth risking more wrecks and injuries.

Meanwhile, the squirrels knocked all the seed out of my feeder onto the ground, which is just as well for my white-throated sparrows who love to eat off the floor. I still haven't seen my usual winter resident yellow-bellied sapsucker, but a report came in that one was spotted in the park a block away. The suet feeder is full, so he just needs to come back for it. I have a brown creeper hanging around my cedars this week, which is always a treat to see, the little bundles of energy hopping up the bark and blending in so well it's almost hard to see them sometimes. At some point today before the temperatures drop and the precipitation begins again, I need to make a trip for more seed.

My Audubon chapter is among many chapters in Missouri conducting Christmas Bird Counts; Springfield's Greater Ozarks Audubon Society is a particularly active chapter, too. Read here for an article in the Springfield newspaper about the data we all collect showing trends in winter bird populations in the Ozarks influenced by climate change. With the wind chill in coming days dipping below zero, take the time to fill your feeders, keep the bird baths full of warm water, and enjoy bird watching from the comfort of your home with a bowl of chili and a glass of Missouri Norton in hand.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Winter in the Interior

I realize we're still in fall according to the calendar, but last week's backpacking trip was reminiscent of cold, hard winter. Frost on the fly of my tent, no moisture in the firewood, and lovely frost flowers at the bases of the wildflowers in my campsite. Having set out in 50 degree temperatures the day before, I didn't pack well enough for the night, and my feet were ridiculously cold all night. Wildfire danger was high with absolutely no rain in the recent past, and I will NEVER be responsible for starting a wildfire because I'm ridiculously cautious with fire, but I can be responsible for containing one. My small stick fire surrounded by three layers of rocks, an established fire pit (created no doubt by Boy Scouts), was not going to escape. Nevertheless, when I left the next day, I piled rocks on top of the embers to make sure there were no rogue embers going crazy in the dry woodland landscape.

The shadows were long, typical of this time of year, but it's so nice to hike without worrying about seed ticks. One stray purple Aster laevis was still in flower but otherwise it was a winter botany hike, lots of blasted out Solidago radula, gattengeri, and so forth. I was there to flag firelines so winter botany wasn't my primary driver. My campsite was the focus that day, trying to get through the flagging to get to my campsite halfway through the unit so I didn't have to set up my tent in the dark. I set up coffee while the screech owls called and was in my tent when the coyotes started their howling.

Winter tent camping leaves a lot to be desired considering that nightfall occurs at 5:30pm, so you're stuck in the tent until you get tired. I once lived by nightfall and daybreak, but that was 20 years ago in a cabin in Arkansas. Pack enough lanterns, batteries, and secure enough kindling for fires, and camping this time of year is fabulous. The short daylengths get me down, make me want to go to bed at 7pm, but soon enough the days will grow longer, the time to comb the catalogs for new kale varieties, and seeing my strawberry plants come back. Meanwhile, I'm loving my white-throated sparrows hitting up the feeders every morning. They have such a low-key chip note but in numbers I know when something is not right, a Cooper's Hawk, a Sharp-shinned hawk coming in. Backpacking season is here, with winter allowing for backcountry exploration. Campstove coffee remains my favorite coffee ever.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

November is Chambourcin Month

With this week's busy fireline flagging schedule and Saturday's early morning birding fieldtrip, I sadly missed the unveiling of St. James Winery's 2016 Nouveau. Beaujolais Nouveau hit the shelves like clockwork on Thursday at the fancy grocery store in my neighborhood, as usual, and just in time for the Thanksgiving table. In past years, I've picked up Missouri nouveau wines to compare to the traditional Beaujolais in a taste test, and so, my tradition in Louisiana will continue but I must score a Missouri varietal soon.

Light bodied, young and fruity red wine is the perfect choice for pairing with turkey and heavy starch sides like dressing and green bean casserole. My Thanksgiving sides tend towards roasted vegetables and stuffed acorn squash, which also pair nicely with a Beaujolais or a Missouri take on the first press. However, since only a handful of Missouri wineries produce the first young and unaged press wine, the Missouri Wine and Grape Board once again designated November as Chambourcin month. Based on no one's opinion but my own, classic Chambourcin is light like an Oregon pinot noir, with a savory and buttery finish. Missouri Chambourcin, like Norton and Traminette, is highly variable ranging from dark and inky wines to the lighter fruitier wines with minimal oak. Indiana wineries are also producing wonderful Chambourcin (and Traminette, for that matter), and Illinois is not far behind. But in Missouri I'm drinking Missouri's Chambourcin. Further, Chambourcin is often used in the production of Nouveau, along with sometimes Corot Noir and St. Vincent.

After a long day of fireline flagging, to celebrate this glorious month I opened one of Phyllis' Meramec Vineyard's Chambourcin to enjoy in my rustic little log cabin. The not-so-great wine stems certainly didn't allow for a full appreciation of this wine, but as usual, it was lovely and perfect for a campfire and s'mores.

It's sad to me Thanksgiving and late fall glossed over with Christmas lights and trees going up all over the place. I love Chambourcin month, I love Beaujolais and all of my fall color clothes. I don't think I've ever had a bad Chambourcin in Missouri, it's really hard to mess up Chambourcin grapes so, usually, if a winery's Norton isn't up to snuff (or is out my price range), I'll buy a Chambourcin. I need to score some Missouri Nouveau and Chambourcin for my annual trek to Louisiana so I'm not stuck with a refrigerator of Natural Light at my dad's house.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Browned Out

In good years with normal weather patterns, by mid October we are afforded cool nights, plenty of rain, presaged by clement summers, which, factors combined, result in spectacular fall color displays in the Missouri Ozarks. Maybe it's just my personal observations, but this year's fall color is seriously lacking in photographic attraction. Even the maples around Hermann and Augusta country which usually allow for foolproof perfect fall color drives are tinged with brown this year with the later cool season, the earlier spring, the dry fall. The panoramic view from the highest point in the Niangua Basin also normally results in breathtaking fall color, but the yellow walnut and hickory leaves are long gone, and the white oak group is changing from fall green to brown. The maroon white oak-yellow hickory-orange sassafras suite of fall color isn't happening this year. In fact, looking at previous photos it should have happened two weeks ago, and now all the trees and shrubs are brown or denuded of leaves from all the high winds.

The warm temperatures persisting into the first week of November and the lack of frost means that a lot of insects who depend on nectar or other plant material are still out and about, trying to forage. Today I saw a sulphur butterfly in my backyard, long after all the asters, goldenrods and bonesets have gone to seed. Are they homing in on neighbors' petunias and chrysanthemums? These horticultural plants just can't be as nutritious as native flora, can they? My across-the-street neighbor has a massive stand of Aster oblongifolius which she rescued from a roadside construction project; this plant continues to bloom in this warm weather with profuse purple ray flowers forming big bushes. Perhaps the stray insects in my yard will find their way across the street. I realize this is micro-scale worry setting in, but this climactic shift across the world is wreaking havoc on wildlife. I just see it more closely in my yard and in the woods I frequent.

So today, donning an old yellow Current River Stream Team t-shirt and raggedy Adidas running shorts, I continued to set up my winter bird feeding operation. The white-throated sparrows are here in droves, and today I saw my first-of-winter brown creeper hanging out on my chinquapin oak. With such a lackluster fall color display, I have been hoarding fall leaves as they end up on the ground. I have collected approximately 50 fall leaves in my plant press that I will preserve in wax paper to hang in my windows this November, inspired (as always) by Meramec Vineyards and Winery. Pay a visit to the tasting room in St. James and you'll see their windows filled with fall leaves preserved in wax paper. Cute. So I'm doing it at home.

The Ozark canopy in Missouri is seriously lacking in fall color this year. My catalpas (which I want to cut down because they don't belong here but offer significant shade in summer months) were very pretty last week, all broadcast in yellow leaves against a bright blue sky. I head south for Thanksgiving where the only fall color exists in exotic tallow trees which are as pretty as Bradford pears in the fall--great color, but horrendously ugly if you understand their impacts to native ecosystems. Climate change is happening now and we have phenology to show it. Bleaching of coral reefs, disappearing glaciers, it's all happening elsewhere, but locally we can see it too. The days of long drives through the woods to photograph Ozark fall color may be a thing of the past. Sadly, we may be past the tipping point of no return.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Persimmon Lore

Driving south on Hwy. 63 this month, it's hard to not take notice of the heavy laden persimmon trees in the fencerows. Last week's high winds knocked the leaves off any tree that was ready for a fall color display, leaving only green and brown leaves in the canopy. But on the fencerows, the persimmons with their bright orange fruit steal the fall color show lately.

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I'm fortunate to have a friend with a massive persimmon that is a descendant of the state champion tree from Missouri's Bootheel. This related tree produces ample fruit every fall which brings in all kinds of wildlife, especially white-tailed deer. But if you collect the fruit early enough, just as the plump orange fruits fall to the ground ripe and juicy, one can process enough pulp to make several batches of persimmon bread and cookies. The best recipe for persimmon cookies comes from an old colleague in New Madrid, Missouri. Her recipe is in the local Chamber cookbook which I purchased specifically for it.

So, tonight I washed all of the persimmons and macerated them with a potato masher in a colander, sending the pulp into a Pyrex bowl below. The slimy seeds and skins are headed for my backyard compost heap where undoubtedly the raccoons and opossums will find them and have a grand time. I cut into three seeds to see what the seeds would forecast for winter. Some folks believe that if you split the seed of a persimmon and it looks like a knife, the winter will be icy. A spoon? Lots of snow. A fork? A mild winter. I cut into three seeds and they all resembled spoons. So, at least for this Outer Ozark Border country on Hwy. 63, the forecast is for a lot a of snow. Let's see if it holds true!