Sunday, May 20, 2018

Reliably Late Spring

Mid-May is officially past us, and the end of spring wildflower season occurred two to three weeks ago in the Ozarks. Finally, long delayed, the oaks have leafed out, all of the interesting migratory birds have passed through my yard and we're in breeding season. With this wonderful time of the year comes the annual visits to known perennial plant populations, plants that show up every year like clockwork, and visits just to check, count stems, and to see our state's incredible diversity.

I spent a couple of days this week in the Missouri River Hills portion of the state, officially out of the Ozark Highlands but in the Outer Ozark Border, an area with lots of limestone and much deeper soils. We visited two sites of the federally endangered Running Buffalo Clover, a super charismatic clover with huge flowering heads and runners that take root to produce more plants. I was fortunate to spend the day with a handful of Missouri's leading ecologists and botanists, a day well spent looking at not only rare plants, but common plants, and birds like Cerulean warblers, butterflies and tiger beetles. Days in the field with like-minded folks are always welcome. This week, I'm back to spraying and pulling exotic species and seeing the ugly side of the natural world, that of invasion by non-native invasive species. In the meanwhile, I'll enjoy these photos of yellow lady slipper orchids and the thriving population of Running Buffalo Clover! If someone can identify the beetle in the last photo, super thanks!

Sunday, May 06, 2018


It was 5:32 am on Saturday when I turned over in bed because I heard the distinctive call of a Tennessee Warbler in my front yard. It was too early to feed the dog, and two hours before the coffee pot would reliably start to brew the pot of coffee I set up the night before. But I was awake. On Friday, I returned to Missouri from the ecological wasteland of Kansas' Flint Hills, a landscape completely depauperate of native flora, but home to vast landscape-scale viewing of storms, big storms, tornadic storms that race across this barren area. These storms in Kansas made their way through the Central Flyway and pushed all kinds of cool birds into mid-Missouri just in time for the Global Big Day on May 5.

The flush of red-breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore orioles, white-crowned sparrows, and golden-winged warblers were easy to see high in the canopy on Saturday which helped me tally a decent checklist for the big day. But backyard birding was never better than Saturday morning! I logged 35 species from my urban backyard, and those were just the ones I could see and identify by call.

Shorebird migration is considerably awesome right now as well with phalaropes and dowitchers coming in on the mudflats. It is only at this time of year when I hear random, rare bird songs of distinctive, unfamiliar birds that wake me up or pull me from the garden to search for these charismatic animals high in the canopy of my yard's oak trees. Oaks are known to attract many species of warblers because they serve as the host plant for hundreds of species of invertebrates upon which warblers depend for breeding success. Today's visitors to my orange slices included not only the Baltimore orioles but a Nashville warbler. I hear their call daily now. If I only tallied the birds I see, the list would be small. To include the birds I hear, the list is large. Migration is a magical time. Keep up the seed feeders, suet feeders, hummingbird feeders, orange slices and grape jelly. Neighbors with all kinds of urban habitat are seeing rose-breasted grosbeaks like the one from my friend's yard pictured below. It's hard to be inside at this time of year.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Delayed Spring

It is truly odd to realize that May 1 arrives this week and the oaks are not yet fully leafed out in much of the state. Bird migration continues, with loads of palm warblers and hermit thrushes showing up in the Ozarks. My backyard house wrens arrived this week and just today started nest building in the handmade nest box that hangs from my cedar tree. While I recognize I am not a longtime resident of Missouri, I admit that this is the first time I've seen serviceberry still in bloom and the dogwoods barely open in the last week of April. The flowering dogwood festivals that took place throughout the region earlier in the month didn't witness blooming dogwoods.

With warbler migration in full swing two weeks ago and continuing, I worry about what the earlier visitors ate on those cold, windy "spring" days. My local Audubon chapter received several bird identification queries regarding warblers trying to find food on the ground since there were no insects to be found in the trees. It is not their usual feeding habit and it confused budding birdwatchers. Many birds depend on the little caterpillars and insects attracted to the budding oaks, so a late spring bud break like this year, or an early leaf on like in 2013, may be detrimental to successful bird reproduction.

But the bluebells are putting on quite a show this week and the morels are up. It's always a shame, however, to discover another garden plant like this exotic, aggressive, rhizomatous yellow-flowering mint family plant completely taking over a streambank and choking out the wild ginger and spring beauty. And it's for sale at WalMart.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Earth Day, Revisited

Friday, April 20, 2018

Bad Times, a New Threat

A couple of days ago, I heard from a friend that we have a new exotic species in the spring flora world to worry about. First, it was Veronica hederifolia, which I've written about, an annual weed known from Steyermark 1963 from one county but now spreading throughout the Ozarks, a plant that we've been on top of eradicating in sinkholes in certain high quality sites. But this new one is more insidious, much more along the lines of garlic mustard, a plant that chokes out native flora long before the sunlight can hit the woodland floor. It's a buttercup, a real pretty garden plant, but this exotic buttercup creates entire mats of leaves and has no known native host insects. As a side note, I spent a good part of my day looking for native bees nectaring on native spring wildflowers (and found several, including the spring beauty andrena that only lives on Claytonia virginica with its pink pollen). Instead, the thick, dense vegetation of this exotic weed chokes out all of the spring wildflowers such as spring beauty.

So, today I saw this Ranunculus ficaria var. bulbifera in action. This exotic plant has completely converted a bottomland woodland once rich with bluebells, spring beauty, native buttercups, and toothwort into a monoculture of green basal leaves with showy, but sparse, yellow flowers. Not known in Steyermark, lesser celandine was introduced from Europe to the US in 1867 as a garden ornamental. Yatskievych notes it quickly becomes over aggressive in gardens. The bulbils (hence var. bulbifera) quickly spread when transported by floods, as well as the seeds. Yatskievych noted it quickly spread to disturbed floodplains and was well established in drainages around St. Louis not too long after being discovered. Today, we discovered it completely carpeting the bottomland woodland associated with the Missouri River in Cole County. With a seed bank up and down the big river systems, and undoubtedly in creeks and streams in St. Louis County, this weed will spread and continue to choke out native spring flora. Homogenization is happening at a rapid pace. Now it's not just bush honeysuckle and deer that I've been grousing about for the past 6 years, but even spring flora. If you see this plant, kill it. Spray it with Glyphosate. Hand pulling only encourages it, apparently. I hate herbicides, but when native landscapes are at risk as they are now, and herbicide is the only remedy, use it wisely, surgically, and with good intent. This buttercup is a bad one.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Birds on the Move!

Reports came in this week that several folks have traveled to Stockton Lake area to witness a white-tailed kite hanging around in town. eBird has published a wonderful tool to track bird migration through eBird reports which they coincide with weather patterns. For those of you primarily interested in when the hummingbird feeders need to be up, visit here to find out when they're being spotted in your area. Reports are in from the Cape Girardeau area and Branson country through the Bootheel. For all birds, go here to explore the birdcast website. Go to the live migration maps and watch it as birds fly through the night. It's just a fascinating time of year to see these ancient migration routes back in action.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Finding Rebar

One of the great joys in my life is joining skilled botanists to collect meaningful vegetation data for analysis. I really love digging into old data, data collected in the 1980s and 1990s, and to revisit the same permanent plots to track changes through time. One can learn a lot from long-term data collection; for example, are species disappearing due to deer herbivory? Are the cover values increasing through time because of management regimes? Are exotic or invasive species outcompeting the natives and turning our best remaining landscapes into homogenized ecological garbage?

With fire season being well over, we took to the land to find those historic plots, mostly marked with a piece of rebar, and mostly rebar with number tags and a spray painted top. In burned landscapes, it is a cinch to find pieces of rebar sticking out of the ground. Many of these plots were installed long before GPS units were available, so subsequent to fires and before the vegetation grows to a height to cover these often 1 ft. tall rebar stakes, we enter the location in the GPS. If one waits until April or May to do this, the stakes vanish, only to be revealed again after another fire.

Last Friday, I visited one of Missouri's most frequently studied areas to mark rebar for resampling post fire. Because so many researchers have descended on this high quality area for the past 35 years, the burn unit was literally peppered with rebar--some spray painted, some with metal tags, some bent at an angle. Thankfully, I've researched a lot of these plots before but it was in 2011 and I couldn't remember if the white spray paint was for the fungi research plots, or was that the blue spray paint? Maybe the blue spray paint was the bird monitoring transects. It was high time to dig through the files again. I had even forgotten which plots were the ones that I established in 2009.

We spent the afternoon reflagging and locating all of the vegetation plots, thankfully labeled at the base with embossed metal tags: HB GL Plot 1 T2, et cetera for three total transects with 6 plots, each in pairs. This activity was the easy one; next up, I have to find all of the deer herbivory exclosures which invariably rest under downed trees it seems. Of all the trees that fall in the woodlands in the Ozarks, I think they actively seek out the large cattle panel-constructed deer exclosures before they fall, crushing the exclosures that were established in the 1980s.

But sampling season will be here soon enough, later than in the past couple of years when we had morels in the first week of April. Unlike my breeding bird surveys which I begin in late May, I don't start vegetation sampling until mid-June. It's just so great to see the Ozarks coming back to life after a dreary winter.