Sunday, February 26, 2017

February Fakeout

The abnormally dry and abnormally warm temperatures this week lasted a lot longer than they have in past years. Having a spring-like thaw is traditional, days when mourning cloaks break out and harbinger of spring first puts on its green. But this week's February fakeout of 80 degrees, high winds, and no moisture was different. High fire danger ratings persisted due to low fuel moistures, high temperatures and humidities dipping into the 28% range. It reminded me of April. So did seeing buttercups and bluets in bloom.

Large colonies of blooming harbinger of spring existed along the bottomlands of the Niangua River this week. I wonder if the native bees that feed on the earliest of the wildflowers broke out during the hot days or if, like birds, they are triggered to move by other mechanisms like day length. Garter snakes and basking turtles were also out this week and I'm hearing Eastern phoeobes lately.

The 28 degree night and cooler temperatures are certainly welcome in late February, and we could use a decent snow as well. As Bill McKibben writes in Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, nature is no longer predictable. Weather events and fluctuations are more extreme today than in the past. The timberdoodles are right on time and a lot of the native trees like the oaks don't seem to be tricked by the temperature (though I did see an aromatic sumac in full bloom this week, and a morel mushroom was reported from the far southwest county of McDonald this week). The days march on towards spring, and who knows, perhaps in coming years we'll see production of homegrown Tempranillo in North Missouri.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Great Backyard Bird Count: February 17-20

(photo credit John Foster from the GBBC website)The annual Great Backyard Bird Count begins on Friday as the kickoff to the long President's Day weekend. This fun event allows birdwatchers all over the world to submit bird checklists to eBird with real time results posted for everyone to see. One can track the state and county checklists, find out what bird species are being documented in your area or a favorite birding haunt. Sign up here before Friday! This four day event is really enjoyable, watching as checklists pour in.I will be in Louisiana submitting checklists from my dad's house and local wildlife refuges, so I may even log a Vermilion Flycatcher. But I'll be watching what's happening at home and throughout the Ozarks.

This week on the Great Backyard Bird Count website, you can comb through the 2016 results and make yourself familiar with the online platform before Friday when the count begins again. If you haven't signed up for an eBird account, it's a little cumbersome, but once you have an account, the GBBC results submission page will direct you with a simple link.

If you like to take photos of birds, the website also hosts a photo contest with prizes and a section where one can upload photos for everyone to see. Join in!

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Settin' the Woods on Fire

As predicted, we witnessed ideal fire weather this past week. Fuel moistures were low, but not in drought in most areas, humidity hovered in the mid-30s% range, and winds were nice and calm. It has been several years since I brought my driptorch to four consecutive fires on four consecutive days. By Thursday afternoon, I was officially exhausted, but thrilled with all the fire on the ground. The Western Ozark Highlands were not the only parts of the region to see fire this week; throughout the state, crews took to the lines to implement this ancient natural disturbance, and with good results and no major problems.

With such mild winter temperatures this season, I was almost expecting to see some greenup in the ground flora. My post-fire patrols didn't reveal a lot of scorched green plants, just the thatch burned off. Mid-March will likely be too late to burn considering the collateral damage, especially if these warm temperatures persist. But this past week was ideal for burning. Next week looks as promising, but we might be getting a bit too dry for woodland fires. I noted three firewhirls while on Tuesday's fireline, but the fire moved so quickly it didn't burn to mineral soil, which is good in the event there were some sedges starting to pop up.

Woodlands interspersed with glades covered in rank warm season grass thatch tends to be what I like to burn the most. The almost predictable fire behavior makes it easy to tell when something may not be going right. This past week burned like clockwork, methodically, cleanly, and completely. I look forward to visiting these and other areas that saw fire recently when spring wildflower season starts in late March. I know what trails to take, what backcountry camping I need to do, and the exact places to find all of Missouri's rich floral diversity that inhabits our special natural places.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Daylength in Winter

After two weeks of cloud cover, the sun finally came out for a few hours this week. The heavy, dense gray skies have made the transition from day to night almost imperceptible, and at a time when most of us want to start seeing longer days. With the cloud cover, I wake up and go to work in the dark at 7am and I leave my office in the dark at 5pm. With the clearing skies, I have a hint of twilight until 5:30, the light of 6:30pm in October, but certainly better than the gray days when no light avails itself. The days are officially growing longer which is not only good for circadian rhythms, but for the promise of spring.

While visiting a bottomland woodland this week along a nice, high quality stream, I saw my first-of-spring Harbinger of Spring, not in flower, but up with full greenery, thousands of plants. Riverbank bottomlands are often the places to go to see the earliest of the blooming spring wildflowers such as Spring Beauty and Trout Lilies. I only saw the plant in green, no other wildflower sprouts, and it seems a bit early even for this one. We're in the time of year for blooming Witch Hazel along streambanks; it may be too late in January for me to catch the state champion in bloom in the St. Francois Mountains or the thick stands of it along streams in the White River Hills. This stunning flowering shrub that peaks in January and February is always a delight to see, a promise of re-greening of the world, and a must-see plant if you've never seen it with its delicate little wavering petals. Instead of spring wildflower hiking, this was a week of fireline flagging, casual winter botany, and managing this horrendous cold that seems to be going around. We all share this cold! Camaraderie! I'm on the tail end of it after four days away from the gym, two days away from the office, and now it's spread throughout my household and to my colleagues.

Meanwhile, with the break in cloud cover and drying winds, the Ozarks are being prepped for a busy week of prescribed fire events. Two weeks ago while flagging lines, someone reported to me that there might be a wildfire while we had these wet, punky, sopping leaves. There was a local landowner trying to burn leaves in ditches but they wouldn't burn (with 80% rh, and fuel moistures past the rate of extinction, the leaves in ditches wouldn't burn but they sure did produce a lot of smoke). I was just flagging. The cloud cover moved back in this afternoon but no moisture is expected early next week and there are surely a lot of folks gearing up for some old-fashioned winter prescribed fires in the uplands. In the period of super short daylengths between December 15 and January 15, one would be hard pressed to even burn off a 20 acre area. But now, with the longer daylengths and dry conditions, we may be able to burn 100, 200 and more acres before the sun sets and shuts down the fires.

With spring occurring at least two weeks earlier than it did thirty years ago (and phenology records to prove it), the fire window is much smaller; the growing season persists into November and begins earlier. Considering I saw Harbinger of Spring up in the river hills near the Meramec River last week, our window for the uplands may even be smaller yet. Raising a cup of green tea with Throat Coat's slippery elm for a good week of prescribed fire next week. Climate change has impacted our prescribed fire season beyond belief, and if we don't take every advantage possible, we may lose the very systems upon which biodiversity depends. The short days of deep winter won't allow for good fire, the highly variable weather of late March is too dangerous from not only a collateral damage standpoint but from a prescription side. The window is narrowing every year to burn our fire-mediated landscapes.

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.