Sunday, May 17, 2015

Lush

May's warm rains have accelerated vegetation growth this spring with legumes already reaching their late summer height. The ragworts and Indian paintbrush are starting to go to seed, flowers fading quickly in the fens and glades of the Western Ozarks. The well-developed canopy makes evident the scattered dead white oaks that didn't make it through the drought year. It wasn't the 2012 drought alone that likely impacted the white oaks at a certain elevation, but the late spring frost earlier that year probably stressed them as well; together, these extreme weather events have proven a little too much for some white oaks. Breaks in the canopy, woodland openings, peeling white oak bark that makes for good bat roost sites, nice woodpecker trees. In resilient systems like the one I visited this week, the natural world can still sort itself out.

Birdsong erupted at 5:30 that morning, with a Kentucky warbler in the lead. A veery chimed in with that haunting circular call and then the Eastern phoebes and the rest of the bird world came alive, the best morning alarm. It's always fun to see ruby-throated hummingbirds visiting flowers on the landscape. There was no shortage of wild bergamot this week, so the sugar water feeders at the building were not surprisingly hosting only a few of these amazing creatures. The hummingbirds were in the woods feeding on the multitude of invertebrates and nectar from all the wildflowers.

We visited an Ozark fen that had been used in the 1970s as a recreational mud pit for trucks. The deep muck almost swallowed my colleague as he sank to his knees in beautiful black fen soil. He came out with a monster-sized devil crawfish whose turrets and tunnels coursed through the fen. This fen is dominated by uncommon sedges and ragworts today, but I wonder what we lost during the 1970s.

It's so much fun to visit high quality ecosystems to see how natural systems respond to fire, to hear all the birds who depend on the intricate food webs that these places support and after a long winter it's nothing short of wonderful to hear the leaves rustling in the trees.

Friday, May 08, 2015

The New Nature

Recently, there has been a surge in literature throughout the conservation community highlighting the importance of native plant gardening for the sustainability of wildlife. The National Wildlife Federation writes that chickadees, for example, require 5,000 insects from native plants to successfully rear a clutch. I trust them, just as I do Doug Tallamy's fantastic book that highlights the importance of converting landscapes from turf to native flora to benefit wildlife. These and a myriad of other articles have positively impacted many communities now embracing native plantings in urban areas; they have reinvigorated Wild Ones chapters, native plant enthusiasts, and wildlife advocates. Add to the resurgence in growing natives are the reports of impacts to non-target wildlife from the widespread broadcasting of glyphosate and other herbicides in an effort for a "weed-free" lawn, and so forth. The assault on wildlife and the natural world is pervasive with sprawling development, wanton abuse of chemicals, regular thumbing of the nose to regulatory agencies and procedures that were put into place in the 1970s during the heyday of the environmental movement.

Yes, I'm familiar with all of this. And yes, my urban lot, located close to a thriving downtown of brewpubs and farmer's markets, is chocked full of native flora. I do not have a lawn, I do not apply chemicals to my yard, and hopefully one day I can afford to buy this old Craftsman bungalow with no attic fan or air conditioning to protect the yard's 400 year old witness tree, a fire-scarred chinquapin oak. Lots of birds, snakes and invertebrates use my yard because of its native quality and active management regime.

So when well-minded individuals seek to convert an old hay pasture or lawn into a native grassland to support wildlife, it's an easy project to support. However, when the old pasture is nestled in an intact landscape of woodlands and glades with their own suite of native plants, I tend to be a little concerned. Where are the seeds coming from? Native to Missouri, yes, but what region? What is the criteria for introducing plants to a certain area if they were not known to exist there historically? Creating wildlife habitat with native plants is good mission in areas that are already destroyed, areas without existing native plants. But compromising the integrity of native systems by adding native plants that may have never been there to begin with is dicey, and is cause for concern. Native plants thrive in native environments because they are suited to the soils, climate, and so forth. So if someone broadcasts a big bag of prairie seeds gathered in the Osage Plains (or even in Kansas) on a field on the Central Plateau in the Ozarks, many of those prairie seeds will germinate. If that field is surrounded by glades, woodlands, fens, or other intact systems, those prairie plant seeds through time may end up in these native systems where they don't belong. Miscanthus, bush honeysuckle, privet, all of these exotics that were planted in yards are now showing up in native systems far removed from where they were originally planted. No one will argue that they compromise an area's naturalness, but so, too, do native plants that are introduced from another locality.

I understand the drive to plant pollinator gardens. I had a great one when I lived in the bootheel where I was surrounded by corn fields. I understand the value of little patches of native flora in a sea of destroyed nature. But when plants of unknown genetics are introduced to native ecosystems, the scientific value and preciousness and fragility of the existing plant life is compromised. Eventually, with the surge in interest in native plantings, we may not be able to visit landscapes with all the rare and original elements in place. Baptisia australis? It's a beautiful plant in the White River Hills, but when it shows up in a seed mix on a sandstone prairie, it's woefully out of range and out of context. Sadly, this mixed up, seed mix-driven ecosystem creation may represent what future generations will know as Nature. It's a sad day when planting milkweeds is vital to the future of the monarch. Glades, woodlands, prairies, fens, they all have milkweeds and many other plants vital to the life history of suites of insects. Protect the nature where it exists, where the ancient genetic memory of intact systems serves entire systems, not just bees and butterflies.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Into the Elk River Hills

The longer daylengths have allowed for so much more exploration during the day, providing the ability to pull into a parking lot at 6 p.m. and explore the landscape well until 8:30 when the light shuts down and the robins start their calling at sunset. But this rugged landscape, all dissected and cut up with cherty slopes and that strange shale layer (not a glade producer) allows for great hiking and curious plants, uncommon in Missouri. And don't forget all the birds that inhabit the woods in the Elk River Hills, the chats, the prairie warblers, the blue-winged warblers, all of these birds that depend on a fire mediated system for sustenance. They were all there this week, in spades.

Down in that deep McDonald County country one encounters a limestone layer that supports a suite of rare-in-Missouri plants like Draba aprica and other spring forbs including green trillium, which expressed itself as though it was on steroids, a massive plant blooming all along the bottomlands.

There's an uncommon spiderwort there, too, which was blooming its ever-loving head off while I was there in late April.

But it's the landscape, the large, contiguous landscape uninterrupted by campgrounds, roads, towns and highways that makes this area so fantastic from a natural history perspective; this 3,000+ acres of contiguous burned woodlands, areas managed with prescribed fire since 1994, possess some of the richest resources of this area which is a scary stone's throw from sprawling metropolitan areas. What to do? Natural areas exist near the sprawling metroplexes of Arkansas and Southwest Missouri, how do you protect them? How do you keep the deer from moving in, how do you continue the fire regime that made it so exemplary to begin with? Bentonville is encroaching rapidly. Enjoy these wild places while they're still wild with bears and songbird populations no longer found in the area. Communities must embrace a wildness to protect it, and I'm not too certain this one will.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Degraded, but not totally trashed

After I pitched camp, I hiked upslope and onto a glade. Evidenced by the spare vegetation in the surrounding woodlands and the scattered stands of buckbrush, the area had clearly seen a lot of grazing in the not too distant past. The old hogwire fencing at the toeslope only reiterated what was notable in the vegetation. But it was a dolomite glade in late March and the longer daylengths allowed for exploration well into evening hours.

Thick, rank warm season grasses still mantle the slope, holding glade soils intact. In other, more degraded settings, the rooting and wallowing caused by hogs and continuous pressure of hooves and grazing by cattle often result in worse ecological conditions. Throughout the glade mapping process, I visited hundreds of glades ranging from medium quality to absolutely destroyed. Yes, cedar invasion is one sign of overgrazing followed by fire suppression, but some glades have been so damaged that very little soil remains, leaving behind rock rubble and scattered annual forbs that reseed easily (parking lot plants, for example, like Leavenworthia uniflora down in the White River Hills or Arennaria patula on dolomite).

So, the grazing history on this glade wasn't nearly as severe as I've seen in similar settings throughout Missouri. While this glade suffers from serious damage, there were still some remnant spring forbs and, most importantly for the recoverability, the prairie grass matrix persists. A cedar removal project and some old fashioned fire would undoubtedly help restore the glade, but unfortunately, as is the case with thousands of glades in Missouri, once the conservative elements have been sniffed out and rooted up, they do not magically return. It is because of the long history of grazing that so many of our plants are conservative now. Even Julian Steyermark noted this. But the grass will help to rebuild the soil and work to repair the damage. If the glade lacked a thick grass component, I wouldn't even think of suggesting restoration--the damage is usually too severe, fire can't carry without grass, and so forth.

But it was sunset, and the screech owls were starting to call and saw my first of the year Viola pedata in full flower, the basal leaves of an Indian paintbrush, a draba or two. Not all of our intact natural communities are as resilient as this area may prove to be, the damage across the Ozarks from years of open range grazing is severe. While the glade soil is not as deep and rich as on some of the lesser-grazed glades in the area, there's still soil here. And grass--a lot of crummy Sporobolus neglectus that inhabits areas of damage, yes. But some semblance of restoration potential.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Central Plateau in Early April

Stepping out of my 365K miles strong-1995 Honda Civic onto a crunchy warm season grass mat, I was met this week with a cold wind, a wind bitter enough to make me wear a stupid fleece jacket even though the forecast was for temperatures in the upper 70s and sun--rare, rare sun. I do like the field verification of glades I've mapped, to step onto these areas that I've seen from multiple iterations of aerial photos ranging from Google Earth to infrared layers on ArcGIS and all, to see the glade on the ground. So, even though it was a casual hike through the Central Plateau on a cloudy day for a determined purpose that was not glade verification, the glade verification fit in quite nicely while I encountered some lovely spring flora along the way.

There isn't a lot of public land in the Gasconade country, even though the river valley represents some of the largest (the second largest, to be precise) concentrations of glades and intact post oak woodlands with river frontage. Not a lot of development in these parts, which is great in some aspects, but cause for concern in others, such as the lack of regulatory oversight for development, regulation on recreation that can cause serious streambank erosion and sheeting, and so forth. I can't do anything about it, of course, so I enjoy it while it exists. Large expanses of glade-woodland complexes of the Roubidoux Formation and Gasconade dolomite, undoubtedly the most common geologic structures in the Ozarks that still have a forest canopy. Oh, there's logging, of course there's logging, but still lots of intact woods. And glades.

As mentioned previously, and a million times before, the bottoms in Missouri are usually just chocked full of spring wildflowers. I was seriously saddened to see an eight mile stretch of riverine forest covered in garlic mustard, but there's no stopping the inevitable homogenization of our landscapes. I had to pull about thirty garlic mustard plants to frame this picture of a bluebell. They'll all disappear unless someone does something. But nothing will happen and in three years I won't be able to come here to take photos of bluebells. I guess I'll seek them out in gardens in Columbia, all surrounded by bush honeysuckle pruned to be a landscaped shrub.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Backpacking in Late March

The world is coming alive now after a long winter's nap. By late March, fire season was officially over in my playbook, so it was time to hit the trail for early spring backpacking. The screech owls have fledged, whinnying all up and down the creekbed, and Eastern phoebes are hawking insects all over warm glade openings before setting up their nests.

I pitched camp early in the day in a wooded bottomland, protected from the fierce south winds and surrounded by blooming spicebush. Just above was a little unmanaged dolomite glade with a few blooming drabas and bird's foot violets, my first of the year. The natural events seem to be on schedule this year, with the songs of Louisiana waterthrush beginning well before the streambank vegetation comes on.

Forested coves are awash in flowers, all taking advantage of the light and longer daylengths, but the fire-mediated dry woodlands and glades also harbor rich floral displays. It's a wonderful time of year when the insects emerge and turkeys gobble. Deep in the valley at my campsite, I didn't hear any traffic noise, just the bare branches of maples rustling together and the early morning bird song. Mourning cloaks were everywhere that warm March day, and really skittish Grapevine Epimenis butterflies were mobbing the scattered flowers in the uplands. Their larvae feed on grapevines, which are abundant in our Ozark woodlands.

Spring is such a fleeting season, the warm rains encouraging an amazing floral display and all the elements of our spectacular natural world renewing itself on its own.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Bloodroot's up. It's spring wildflower time!

Just last week I canvassed a series of really nice dolomite glades looking for a blooming Draba, D. cuneifolia, to be specific. I saw the green blades of false garlic, some basal leaves of Geum in the woods, but the rest of the world was a uniform khaki of post oak leaves and rank warm season grasses. The lawn weeds and little parking lot Brassicas started blooming recently, and just today, hiking up a steep slope on a protected hillside covered in the basal leaves of a rare shooting star, I stumbled onto my first-of-year anemones. Or false rue anemones. Every March I forget which is which.

And so, I return to my wonderful Paul Nelson-illustrated Spring Wildflowers book, used in many places as a coloring book but serving as a great refresher in not only scientific nomenclature--which has probably all changed lately--but in the location of spring wildflowers. Because the book is out of print, with permission of the illustrator, I have scanned all the plates and posted them here for a quick review session before spring wildflower season really ramps up. We're expecting snow this weekend, which is typical, though cruel.

Today's hike took me through really homogeneous Ozark woods of a black oak-red oak character, Roubidoux sandstone-Gasconade dolomite bedrock community, a prized though typical and widespread landscape for timber people. In the unburned condition, these kinds of woods are not very diverse or interesting from a ground flora perspective, but such is the joy of spring wildflower season! One can visit trashed out bottomlands along streams, areas that were once corn fields, and still find spring flora. Unburned, overgrazed, logged woods with some semblance of native diversity and not socked in with bush honeysuckle? You'll still find spring flora. Spring wildflowers are ubiquitous in the Ozarks in Missouri, found even in gravel parking lots where some "rare in Missouri" but widespread in the White River region grow. So, with these longer day lengths, chipping sparrows starting to call, timberdoodles probing for insects, hit up your local woods for some wildflower walks and a dose of long awaited Vitamin D.