Sunday, July 24, 2016

Chanterelle Season

The 10% chance of rain on Friday turned into a steady downpour which left the woods in an incredibly steamy state. Hiking through some hay fields and into the dissected terrain rich with large white oaks and a relatively poor understory of sedges and little else, my trouser legs were soaked only twenty steps in. Nevertheless, a day in the woods beats any day at a desk, and a day in the woods with a stellar mycologist is even better.

When I first moved to Missouri, I gobbled up every kind of natural history information I could gather, so impressed with the intact nature of many thousands of acres. By late June in the chert woodlands where I worked, small, brilliant orange mushrooms began to appear on a trail growing upon relatively bare soil. They weren't very big at all, but my trusty colleague identified them as chanterelles, edible mushrooms that grow each summer throughout Missouri. I collected a few, washed off the dirt that had kicked up on the underside, and sauteed them just as I did regular button mushrooms: olive oil, Cajun seasoning, garlic, and red wine. These little guys barely made a side dish, but they were certainly scrumptious.

The relatively regular rain events in the northern reaches of the Ozarks this summer has resulted in a bumper crop of the beefy, much larger chanterelles, Cantharellus cibarius. On the steamy Friday afternoon, days after I had mentioned to my mycologist friend that I would gladly accept a donation of chanterelles this summer, we came upon a hillside chocked full of large, fresh, beautiful chanterelles. These weren't the small ones I first met, these are huge mushrooms, so large that it would only take two to cover a pizza. The serious mycologist carries paper bags and a knife on forays into the woods. We left the patch to finish our scouting event, and came upon two more hillsides covered in bright mushrooms, patches so large one could spot them many hundred feet away. We had to collect. I was giddy with excitement when my friend handed me a knife to cut the mushrooms at the base so as to keep the mud off of them (easier to clean that way). We filled three sacks on one patch.

Not only has this been a great summer for chanterelles, but for many other kinds of mushrooms. There's a toxic look-alike to chanterelles in Missouri, so before any foraging of edible mushrooms, take extreme caution and positively identify them. I'm fortunate to know a scholarly mycologist. After our trip to the woods, I brought him to my house to help identify the fungi growing in the backyard. The squirrels and insects are doing a great job of devouring them all, but a few remained intact and now I have a curated list for the yardforest! Spending time with experts in the field of natural history is fabulous. I never want to stop learning. Oh, and my large batch of chanterelles will be prepared in many different ways with so many delectable recipes highlighting the natural flavor of this beautiful mushroom.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Classic Eminence

The morning cicada chorus began around 9am that early July afternoon. The night before, I heard my first katydids of the summer through my open window. Summer's wildflower displays are coming on in full force, the perfect time for a hike through the woodlands to the Eminence glade that stretches almost 8 acres along a steep ridge. This may be one of the best examples of an Eminence dolomite glade in the area.

Usually when I'm sampling glades, I will encounter scattered Buchnera americana, sometimes ending up in my plots. The lovely blue flower was dominant across the expanse and in bloom that day. The flowerheads of Rudbeckia missouriensis will be in flower in the upcoming weeks, and the blazing stars are only now beginning to bloom. Of course, no good day hiking comes without seed ticks, but they weren't nearly as pervasive as in other parts of the state, which is notable especially having seen direct evidence of a browse line in the woods.

I remain in awe of insect diversity in nice systems like this one. Blooming plants are covered with nectaring bees and flies, and there are so many species of true bugs that I can't even fathom learning them all. I've started with learning the insects in my yard which is full of generalist species that can manage in a highly fragmented system, but in an intact landscape of 17,000 acres managed with occasional and responsibly applied prescribed fire? I wouldn't even know where to begin to learn all of them. Botany is hard, it's really challenging, but entomology -where the subjects MOVE- is a field I would need three lifetimes to learn. It is certainly fun learning, though.

It would be interesting to collect data on high quality examples of Eminence glades to compare the different regions of the expression and then to compare to Jefferson City-Cotter glades. If this was the year 1800, it would be easier to assess true differences, but with today's highly damaged and altered systems, it's tricky to make these kinds of determinations when so few undamaged systems exist in the modern age. Regional differences are easier to see--e.g., all the of species restricted to the White River Hills versus the restricted species on the arc of Jefferson Co. glades. For example, what is behind the distribution of Echinacea simulata on Eminence glades in the southern Ozarks compared to these northern glades where this species is absent? Is it extirpated? Was it there historically? Or is there some range issue that is despite similar rock type and structure. And that's just one species. It sounds like a fun project, nonetheless, to sample glades of specific dolomites, the different igneous, limestone series and sandstones. This sounds like a project for retirement.

Monday, July 04, 2016


On this rainy holiday weekend, I fondly look back to Friday, a clement July 1st spent in the woods of the Niangua Basin. I went to this beautiful, often burned private land of almost 1,000 acres with one road, a couple of hay pastures in the creek bottoms, but mostly woodlands and glades that have basically remained untouched barring landowner-set fires. Almost 13 acres of glades and open, grassy woodlands full of warm season grasses and tons of prairie clovers are serving pollinators and the bird community here quite well.

I don't know when the last time someone hiked around this area that has no real access, but I didn't see any deer stands, footpaths, developments or even old logging roads that day. This backcountry area was full of bird life and signs of successful nesting. Four little Kentucky warblers were looking for food from their parents in a shrubby area. We flushed a goatsucker protecting her young, watching closely where we stepped thinking she was still on eggs; two steps forward and we came across the two young while the adult charged at us. Quickly, we headed upslope to leave her to her job after snapping one photo with a telephoto lens. At the crest of the primary ridge, we came up to a big post oak with a couple of young broad-winged hawks circling, potentially another big nest.

Because this area is so secluded, there were no exotic species infestations, no recent logging evidence, just classic undulating dry chert woodlands, some mesic limestone-dolomite forest with green violets carpeting the area, some moist dolomite cliffs, and these great glades with thick cover, no major grazing here. The creeks had a little water, but lots of fish, crayfish and water striders; I feel confident that this entire rainy weekend brought some much needed rain to the watershed. It brought three inches to my basement.

I love knowing places like this still exist in private ownership. This family has been an incredible steward to this landscape. I know the birds thank them.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

On Grass

The annual prairie sampling event occurred earlier this week under clear skies and warm conditions. Sampling across various natural communities always coincides with the beginning of grass court tennis and the finale, the Wimbledon Championship. Of course, the Race to Wimbledon, the minor grass court tournaments including Aegon and other English tournaments, is seldom aired on network television, only on the Tennis Channel. Thankfully, the "Tennis Channel Lite" is available through our computer since we do not own a television. So, I've been able to see these young whipper snappers like Thiem and Zverev whiz through the brackets of old veterans in the minor tournaments. Sadly, I still have to go elsewhere to see the grand slam tournaments since they're blacked out on Tennis Channel Lite.

I just finished completing my bracket this morning and went with my heart for the final--Murray and Roger with Roger winning the cup. I realize it will probably be Djokovic who wins the Championship, but my loyalty is with Roger. My bracket resulted in some hard decisions such as Nishikori meeting Gasquet and I love them both (so it doesn't really matter who wins, I wish they both could. I went with Gasquet in my bracket). The French Open was so ridiculously unpredictable that I just stopped looking at my bracket standings after the third round. Hard working players like Vesely and Bautista-Agut are back for Wimbledon, along with one of my new favorites, Taylor Fritz, a fabulous young talent reminiscent of 2006 Federer.

So, as fieldwork continues despite Wimbledon, the search begins for restaurants in the Ozarks with Direct TV with premium channels including the Tennis Channel (217). Applebee's and Ruby Tuesday carry it, along with L'il Rizzo's in Osage Beach--these are known locations. Later rounds are usually aired on ESPN, probably much to the chagrin of other sports enthusiasts. "Aw, dammit! Tennis! Who watches TENNIS?!" I know my Wimbledon bracket is not air tight by any stretch; it's more of a Fantasy Tournament bracket. Maybe this will be as fun as the 2008 Men's Final, my favorite match of modern tennis (being re-aired today on the Tennis Channel today at 1:00pm!). Let the games begin!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Hot Day in the Woods

While officially we were still in spring this past week, the temperatures reaching 97 degrees and dry weather were more reminiscent of late July. Unfortunately, this might be the new normal. Nevertheless, high temperatures or not, I still enjoy being in the woods before seed tick season starts.

I visited a site that had seen fire in January 2015, a nice, cool fire that consumed leaf litter in the woods and thatch on the glades. This spring, the area is filled with wildflowers including pale purple coneflowers and gobs of purple prairie clover. Insect life is abundant, and breeding woodland birds were everywhere. Last year, there was a nesting pair of red-shouldered hawks in a big post oak near one of the many glades in the unit. Summer tanagers and Eastern wood pewees are as common here as house sparrows in a McDonald's parking lot.

The glades in the area witnessed cedar removal projects over the course of four years; today, these are some of the richest glades in the whole 3,900 acre tract. Milkweeds, especially the narrow leaved A. stenophylla, were magnets for native bees that morning. I don't know my native bees very well at all, but noting multiple species of not only bees, but flies and skippers and a motley crew of pollinators, all nectaring on wildflowers was spectacular. I am grateful places like this exist in the Ozarks. Biodiversity is maximized on a landscape scale here in this area relatively free of exotics and, properly managed, still functioning with the natural disturbance factors that gave rise to it all.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Degradation Turnstile

In the past few weeks, I've had the pleasure to tour areas that have been under ecosystem restoration projects for several years. Fire management, cedar removal, some hardwood thinning have all been facets of the restoration with the primary driver of restoring the understory's native biodiversity, suppressed for over 100 years by fire cessation and grazing by domestic livestock. I have enjoyed seeing early restoration sites, considering that I normally work with areas that have been managed for at least 20 years and are further along in the restoration process (and therefore more botanically diverse).

I visited a couple of sites last week with a decent enough understory, which is a key component in restoring a given area since fire behaves differently through a grass-forb mix than dense, thick oak leaf litter. Early restoration should really focus on getting enough light to the ground to promote an understory response since it is the understory that will dictate future fire behavior. One site witnessed a January fire that took out the cedars but the overstory was still quite closed, resulting in a sparse understory dominated by legumes and oak sprouts. Recommendation? Don't burn for a year and maybe do some girdling of all the out-of-context red oak/black oak that shouldn't be there to begin with.

I've thought a lot about these managers who are, today, embarking on restoration efforts and hopefully thinking about the lessons I've learned through the years, lessons which may not appear in published papers but are based on anecdotal evidence, not the strongest argument in the box. For example, super hot fires can be highly damaging. And excessive thinning in degraded woodlands can result in years of brush production. Not all ecosystems are restorable. Areas that were once hog lots may not ever recover species richness, but, depending on the level of abuse, they may be recoverable to some degree, which I have noted on a particular glade complex in the Western Ozarks.

But mostly I'm concerned about the managers who feel that a "one size fits all" approach to ecosystem management will result in high quality restoration sites. Too often I have seen highly damaged areas treated with fire at inappropriate times which has resulted in a monoculture of Hieracium (fireweed), or brush, or both. Every tract of land has had a different land disturbance history and that must be taken into account before restoration efforts are employed. If not, the future desired condition may never be met.

Yesterday I spent a rainy morning in what I normally think of as beater land, Oregon County, degraded to hell from years of grazing. We had a first fire there in January under mild prescription. Legumes came on really strong and the spare understory pointed to a highly closed canopy that does not promote an herbaceous response. But it was a first fire, and I was interested to see what would come up in this area that had not seen fire in at least 60 years. Based on my experience, this area may be vaguely recoverable, so definitely worth keeping up with a fire regime. But this area, like so many thousands of acres across the Ozarks, have seen serious damage, so restoration through fire and thinning should be implemented very very carefully. One super hot April fire through this area and the soil will be damaged to the point of no return. Logging practices would damage the fragile soils to the degree that the area would only produce brush and weeds. Ecosystem restoration is a very sensitive and highly technical process. One mistake- one fire in late April that cooks the soil and destroys the understory, one logging practice that ruts the soil making it vulnerable to exotics- can be the death knell of ecosystem health. Restoration is a one way turnstile: one mistake, one ill-planned event of a too hot fire, of a too aggressive thinning, and the system will not respond positively. Maybe some folks want bare soil or an understory dominated by generalists and exotics, but it shouldn't be called ecosystem restoration. It only takes one mistake by managers to send a system to the point of no return. One tractor bulldozing a trail and rutting up the surrounding area, one hot spring fire that kills all of the native flora, or one mistake of overstocking a native herbivore in an effort to emulate natural disturbance factors such as grazing. In the name of restoration, too many acres of our natural landscapes are being lost because of poor management decisions. Viable ecologists dictating ecosystem management are few and far between, and sadly, our lands can't recover from management mistakes. It's a one way turnstile. Once high quality systems are gone, they don't readily recover from management mistakes. If they did, we would have a lot more land that could be characterized as high quality. It's shrinking thanks to human error.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Saturday Morning in the Yard Forest

In November 2007, shortly after I had accepted a position outside of the Southeast Missouri Lowlands where I had lived since the storm, I began combing through Craigslist looking for rental property close to downtown. I had a dog, dart frogs, and a penchant for Craftsman architecture, so I landed on a street with numerous rentals in a downtown neighborhood. People were frightened when I told them the address. Of course, having lived in downtown New Orleans for many years, this neighborhood with ethnic, age and income diversity was not "scary" to me. Nonetheless, when I moved into this house, colleagues recommended I "pack heat" to walk to the gym and grocery store. That's pretty stupid, racist, and classist, and not based in any facts but solely in fear of "other," so I relished the new house which I rented based on multiple factors: the yard, the old growth trees, the original hardwood floors, the proximity to a thriving downtown, and the gas stove. All of my nice pans were trashed from the electric stove in the Bootheel.

I rented this house from 2007 until I bought it in September 2015. Upon renting, I immediately began an exotic species eradication program. Being situated in an urban area, bush honeysuckle and wintercreeper coursed throughout the yard, despite the native flora that persisted under the canopy. There is no lawn here, and if there ever was one, it was lost to the natives that lived in the seedbank which have been stimulated by the recurring management regimes we have put in place. I have not introduced any plants to the yard except for a small vegetable garden of kale and some lousy peppers. The Craftsman bungalow with no air conditioning had been owned by an elderly lady whom the neighbors called the "paper towel lady" because she was always wiping her windows with paper towels. She lived here quietly for over 50 years and after she died, my landlady bought the bungalow primarily for the yard. I rented it for the yard. Being close to downtown and in the middle of a city, the yard in 2007 did not have any super floristic diversity, but the understory was predominantly native. While walking through the backyard upon signing the lease that November, my trousers became vectors for the spread of Tovara, Solidago canadense, and three species of Desmodiums. I could see recovery. I moved in and immediately began managing the yard. (Sadly, Google Earth's street view drive-by occurred when there was still an abandoned van in the front yard and there was no vegetation but some crummy catalpas that remain today. On Google Earth my house looks like a crack den-- lots of bare soil and old, broken clay tiles from the roof replacement.) The developer who renovated the house after the paper towel lady died put a slap of paint and a new roof on it and sold it to my landlady for a ridiculous amount at the height of the housing boom. But the yard was restorable. And it had a witness tree in the back, a sickly chinquapin oak that stood sentry over a black oak-walnut woodland that grew to huge heights thanks to the Missouri loessal soils.

Since 2007, we have managed the yard and have had run-ins with the weed inspector, meetings which I have catalogued here through the years. The backyard continues to accrue species richness, though dominated by Silphium perfoliatum and Tovara--not the worst plants for pollinators by any stretch, but not intact natural community-loyal species. Blue-eyed grass and inland sea oats showed up a few years ago, along with morel mushrooms around my elm. But I have no lawn. My sedge list has increased from two species in 2007 to eight in 2016 with Carex davisii and C. amphibola serving as the dominant species. After a few years of management, Penstemon digitalis and spiderwort appeared, and their populations continue to expand across the yard. Now that I own the house and have worked closely through the years with the weed inspector to impart the importance of native landscapes, I feel confident that my yard will not be brushhogged thanks to my National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Habitat sign, even when the Desmodium and Solidago reach two feet high.

I now have four species of native grape in my yard and this spring they have matured to the point that the flowers are pollinated. The insect, bird, and herptile diversity in the yard is significant, especially considering how close I am to downtown and the urban interface. My witness tree still stands. Thanks to James Harlan's incredible digitization of Missouri's General Land Office survey records, I have created a map for my Neighborhood Association that shows which witness trees persist in neighborhood yards. My chinquapin oak is one of them. I love that tree. Anyone else would cut it down and plant a Bradford pear. The chinquapin oak was a primary driver in my securing funding to buy this little 645 ft.2 bungalow with no air conditioning and no attic fan or duct work.

So I think a lot about the recent trend in native plant gardening. I have not added any plants to my yard, but recognize that if I brought in more natives I could probably entice more pollinators, but I prefer to preserve my landscape however altered it has been from years of mowing. Doug Tallamy's landmark book, Bringing Nature Home, has caused a huge movement in native plant gardening which is a great trend. Of course, native plants are certainly preferred over exotics and petunias loaded in chemicals. When I worked in New Orleans in a largely destroyed ecosystem, I worked closely with the local Native Plant Society chapter to secure local genotypes to restore species richness in a garden setting for my workplace. Now, using natives is mainstream, especially with the decline of monarchs and other pollinators. Unfortunately, these native plants are being scattered throughout our community without much regard for local genotype. Native to Missouri does not mean native to Shannon County or native to the moist slopes of the streambanks of the Jack's Fork River, for example.

Recently, on multiple occasions, I have visited places touting their "native flowerbeds" which "support pollinators and wildlife." This is all good and fine, but when I am in an area with distinct, unique characteristic natural communities such as chert glades, globally significant chert glades, mind you, I sort of recoil at seeing native plant beds filled with dolomite glade species collected from the White River Hills region. Baptisia australis? Gorgeous plant. Does it belong in an area outside of its natural range? Oh, I can see planting it in a yard in St. Louis in a suburb of nothing but turfgrass, but it should not be planted anywhere near natural communities -restored or degraded- where it may escape cultivation. Where are the genetics hailing from? And is it a cultivar? We lose the scientific value of native flora when we start playing Johnny Appleseed. So many native trees are succumbing to old age only to be replaced in the urban landscape with cultivars. Red maple var. 'Duraheat' for example. You won't find that variety in an intact least not until it escapes cultivation.

I recognize that not everyone has the luxury of owning a backyard that has been spared transformation, the step beyond homogenization, but both representing the point of no return for biodiversity and species accrual. Native plant gardening is all good and well in areas that have been destroyed. In monocultures of Tifway 319 or fescue where there is no chance of species accrual from natural systems, sure, plant away. But in my yard, managed with fire and showing some resiliency in the understory along with recruitment in the canopy layer, I won't do it. I won't be planting "natives." My local weed inspector has learned a lot about Aster drummondii and Solidago ulmifolia, neither of which are particularly showy until the fall, but when they reach maturity, they're incredible. My yard will never be natural area status, of course, but I'm happy I bought it and that chinquapin oak is very happy with all the fire management.