Sunday, July 16, 2017

A Little off the Beaten Path: Red Moose Vineyards

A few nights ago, while in my hotel room listening to the cicada and katydid chorus through my screen window, I flipped through the hotel's complimentary magazine that highlights local businesses. Naturally, if I see the words "vineyard" or "winery," I will investigate the advertisement and take note. New wineries are opening annually in Missouri, and this one, Red Moose Vineyards, located about 30 miles outside of Salem, has been around for a few years now and operating under my winery-seeking radar. Well, under the radar until now.

Follow the curvy road of Hwy. 19, the same road that takes one to Akers Ferry Canoe Rental and into the heart of the Current River Hills, then peel off onto VV- not VV in Dent County but Crawford County. On the right, just a few miles down VV and on a short gravel driveway, sits a lovely new metal building with log cabin accents and large two story deck complete with brightly colored umbrellas over the tables to provide shade. The deck overlooks the vineyard which was planted in 2006 with Norton, Chambourcin and other varietals that make up my favorite Missouri wines. Inside the log cabin accents with a contemporary feel is a modern tasting room with high ceilings and huge windows that allow for ideal natural light. Red Moose Vineyards was not named after the animal, but the partners- the winemaker's nickname Red, and Moose is Red's brother and both he and his wife (their sister-in-law) collaborate in the business. Moose's real name is Mark and their sister-in-law's name is Shirley, but she goes by the nickname Zimm. This business is a true family venture.

The rustic -yet modern- feel of the winery includes a mounted moose head above the door and a silhouette red moose as the logo. So, even though the winery was not named after the animal, it would have been strange to not have a red moose as the logo. I recall a winery in North Missouri named after the owner's son, but the entire winery was outfitted in "I Love Lucy" paraphernalia (which made me check the record to find out if Lucille Ball was a Missourian. She was not).

Red Moose Vineyards offers light lunch options such as pizza and cheese trays, winery food always welcome to winery guests (especially my trusty driver). More importantly for me at a Missouri winery is the wide variety of supple, beautifully made dry red wines. The Red Moose 2012 Norton is a classic, aged 14 months in white oak barrels procured from McGinnis Wood Products in nearby Cuba, Missouri. The 2015 Chambourcin is fantastic, and while it's a drink-now wine, it could also be set aside for a few years to see how it develops. The precious barista that day was the winemaker's wife and partner who had time to tell me about the winery's history: They moved here from Edwardsville, Illinois where she worked for the local fire department. Her husband was a home winemaker in the beginning. On the tasting bar was a photo of the label of Fruition, a red blend that they sell, with part of the proceeds of the sales of this wine earmarked for a local Salem Plateau- area fire department. Each month the sales of this wine, Wine with a Cause, goes to a local charity of Red Moose Vineyard's choice. Of course I bought this one for my rack, knowing that part of my purchase that day was going to the local volunteer fire department.

As is the case with most Missouri wineries, the biggest sales here come from the sweeter offerings. I tasted the semi-sweet wines, which were lovely but probably too dry for my one friend who drinks sweet wines. They excel at dry vintages, and are among the friendliest bunch of folks I've met in a long time. This little winery off Hwy. 19 has something to offer everyone, including beer drinkers who can enjoy Rolla/St. James Public House's fine craft beer. I'm thrilled Red Moose Vineyard is successful, and so happy to have met the winemaker who helped me with my yeast choices for my first batch of Norton. What a great place to spend an afternoon overlooking incredible vines and the welcome thunderstorms rolling in.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

A New Landscape Paradigm

In the past ten years that I have lived in my yellow Craftsman bungalow, I have dealt with the local weed inspectors regarding my native, wild yard. I have a lot of asters, goldenrods, wild geraniums, spiderwort, cup plant and other native species; seeing these rangy plants when they're not in full glorious bloom seems to ruffle feathers in the code violations offices. Fair enough, I understand height restrictions for plants that are not typical garden variety species. I certainly understand where the weed inspectors are coming from, a background of lawns being tidy and nice, manicured, which my yard is not. I worked in horticulture in a past career, so certainly recognize the concept of well-manicured yards to keep snakes and rats at bay. I also recognize that native plant gardening doesn't result in pest problems.

When I first moved into this house as a renter, I took note of the native flora that was persisting through the frequent plantings of turfgrass. In this perched wetland classified as an upland flatwoods, we had old growth chinquapin oak, pin oaks with buttressing bases, lots of smartweeds, joe pye weed, spiderwort, and all of these species came in on their own, so I was in no position to eradicate them in favor of a turfgrass lawn. I've never owned a lawn mower and never wanted to invest in one. We've had our battles with the weed inspector but it's mostly because the lot next to mine is abandoned and has chest-high fescue and Queen Anne's lace. I actively work to make my yard less weedy and more forb-y. The hostas that the previous landowner planted never do very well; they flower for a few days and then shrivel in the crappy soils inherent in this property. The purple coneflowers do quite well, along with black-eyed Susans which bloom profusely throughout June and August. But I still have the tall asters that won't flower until early September. And then there's my Helianthus hirsutus which doesn't really flower until late September.

Tuesday afternoon I will have a cadre of "backyard habitat specialists" on my property for an assessment. I have gone through the paperwork for a National Wildlife Backyard Habitat certification, and the local version of that which asks even further questions about rain barrels and compost piles, which, of course I have. I have shared photos of other native vegetation yards in the neighborhood to the office that will be coming out to my yard, all beautiful photos of Ratibida and coneflowers, charismatic sedges, nice and organized yards. I've worked hard this week to make my yard look organized, cutting back seedheads of sedges knowing that the weed ordinance hits yards with "weeds" 1 ft. tall, which my Carex annectans is. Cut it. I did. I've trimmed back my gooseberry shrubs, my wild hydrangeas, my elderberry, all very tidy and manicured now. I do hope I pass inspection and the muster that will allow me to weigh in on native plantings. Fingers crossed.

Update!Met with the City Conservationist today and my yard ranked Platinum because there is no trace of bush honeysuckle, lawn grass, wintercreeper and other weeds. I scored well with my rain barrel, bird baths, bird houses, bird feeders, bee house, brushpile, native fruit producing flora (she had some of my gooseberries which the catbirds left behind), so I get a sign in the yard as a native habitat landscape! Now I will have the city sign, my National Wildlife Federation sign, and my Bernie sign. She told me I needed to keep up the Bernie sign, which has been up since early 2016. It's not coming down.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Oh Deer, We Have a Serious Problem

Visiting the Cross Timbers country, where the Ozarks meet the prairies, is usually full of fun botanical discoveries--Perideridia americana, Malvaviscus hispidus, fun stuff like that, all surrounded by stunted post oak trees that average 400 years in age. This traditionally open landscape was the site of early ecosystem restoration projects spearheaded by a colleague, followed up by botanical surveys which indicated super rich woodlands, old growth post oaks, a grass-forb mix that appeared after thinning and prescribed fire were implemented. I love camping here with all of the Summer Tanagers, the Orchard Orioles, the Red-headed Woodpeckers that all thrive in this great environment.

But when I looked at the sampling data from 1987 and compared it to my own transect data along the same plots I collected in 2011, it was not even recognizable. First I thought I was in the wrong area, but I quickly realized that the entire site had been so severely degraded by deer overbrowsing that I asked for funding to install deer exclosures just to make sure I wasn't crazy. 16 ft. cattle panels, held together with baling wire, requiring climbing into them to sample the vegetation. So, I set up deer exclosures in 2011. I have sampled outside the deer exclosure and inside the deer exclosure using valid methodology established by the outfit I work for every year after a prescribed fire. The first few years I saw a few differences, more flowering stems inside the exclosure, more development of redbuds, white oaks and other ice cream plants for deer. I have collected data since 2011 and the data from 2017, collected last week, tells a story. A horrible story.

Imagine a landscape that was on par with the best remaining quality landscapes in the Niangua Basin, super rich with edge-of-range species, a lot of Camassia angusta, Brickellia, all kinds of cool plants that pollinating insects depend on, and then add an atrociously high number of white-tailed deer, some so tame and tick-infested that they come up to campers looking for food. Biodiversity disappears. I have witnessed this trend around St. Louis, and thankfully we have long-standing deer exclosures set up there, too, to measure deer impacts to vegetation. Unfortunately, someone in my shoes complaining about deer overpopulation and the degradation of biodiversity at the hands of deer doesn't stand a chance in the political realm. So I collect data. I write testimony that deer are impacting biodiversity.

When the woodlands of the Cross Timbers country were once a rich system with a suite of warm season grasses and perennial forbs- many of them restricted in their range- when that landscape is reduced to a monoculture of inland sea oats, genus Uniola, with no forb diversity, there's a problem. There's especially a problem when in those deer exclosures I set up in 2011 possess more species richness than anywhere else in the entire 800 acre tract, there's a problem. Indeed, deer cause a lot of collateral damage to crops, to automobiles, but no one is measuring the impacts of deer on biodiversity except a few select folks. When I saw a doe in my yard recently I recoiled and yelled and screamed and almost pulled out my Daisy slingshot. My partner laughed, saying that I trash talk deer so much that now they're coming after my yard. It's not funny. Deer are voracious feeders and will denude a landscape of quality vegetation, and when that happens, the whole trophic cascade effect occurs. Without the flowering plants you don't see pollinators. Without pollinators and other insects you don't see birds. Without birds you don't see seed dispersal, and so forth. Deer are the hooved locusts of biodiversity. Managing this scourge from the east, from the abysmal landscapes of Biltmore Estates, no plants but trees (not regenerating) and ferns, will be our future unless we take immediate action to control these out of control deer populations. Without the long standing predator-prey relationships, deer will continue to spiral out of control. And biodiversity loses every time.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

June is Concord Month!

As any loyal reader of my blog knows, I do not drink sweet wine. I opt for Norton, Chambourcin, cheap Cabernet for my house wine. I do collect Oregon pinot noir and Missouri Nortons and will open one on special occasions, including one occasion which involved the coming of my house wrens to my wren box. These are special occasions. When the katydids start calling I'll open another one. I have great hopes of making my own wine, not for apocalypse planning but for my own edification. So I had to start somewhere. Missouri seems like a great place for making wine.

And so, last July I placed an order for Norton juice from a St. James area vineyard that cannot produce wine. They grow grapes and can sell juice, but can't make wine. When I finally arrived in mid-September, they only had Concord juice, sold as juice, frozen to kill off the wild yeast. I reconfigured my recipe with champagne yeast to make Concord wine, preferably a dry wine that didn't taste like all the commercial Concords that are palatable to college-aged girls and sweet wine lovers.

A family friend gave me two glass carboys, my partner gave me the fermenters and airlocks, along with a great book on making wine. Special thanks to professional winemakers who gave me more advice than I even understood, I made my first batch of wine: Concord, with regular wine yeast and champagne yeast as a finish. The wine turned out vaguely effervescent, but flavorful. I have given it away to friends who drink sweet wine and have given tastes to friends who support my plan to make supple, dry wines out of Missouri-grown grapes. But June is designated as Concord Month by the Missouri Wine and Grape Board, so I celebrate my first venture into making wine. I have yet to actually drink anything more than a taste of the wine I made. I plan to improve my skills with better juice secured from a winery in Osage County. In the meantime, visit Missouri wineries this summer! Concord is a good place to start. Usually folks will drink sweet wine and then matriculate to dry wines. Concord is traditionally so damned sweet but it's a good gateway wine for anyone wanting to go from beer or liquor to wine.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Three Days on the Current River

I set out early on Monday for a three day birding event in the Current River country. I hadn't visited the area since the last big flood, the one that sent buildings downstream, ripped roofs off of float outfitters and shut down the river to recreation for almost an entire month. The streambanks have been shredded. Volunteers and hired hands spent a month clearing downed logs to make the river passable for floaters by cutting up the snags into firewood and sending them downstream. But the streambanks look like a tornado went through them.

Streambank natural communities are accustomed to, and in fact dependent on disturbance such as from intermittent flooding. But to what degree of disturbance? This megaflood ripped mature trees and sections of bottomland woodlands out of the way which has now widened the river in some places, filling the river with sediment and more gravel, making it look like the sections of river where jet boats cause significant sheeting and degradation of the streambank. The flooding sent all of the fish hatchery trout downstream on the Current, little guys, voracious feeders of native fauna. Before Welch Spring I noted large patches of bright green filamentous algae, a sign of pollution from the watershed. All the fertilizer from pastures, manure and flooded bathrooms and latrines sending high nutrient loads downstream. I have seen the same on parts of the Jack's Fork River from horse manure, areas that were cordoned off from full body contact with the water, but that was in a stagnant July.

Cliff faces must be the most sturdy of our natural communities associated with Ozark streams. The Southern Maidenhair Fern persists despite the roaring river waters. Gravel bars have been reshaped, the river is widening and sediment sloughing off. Gravel accretion occurring rapidly. Unfortunately, I doubt this can be classified as a once-in-100-years flood event.

I woke every morning at 5:30 to the sounds of cerulean warblers, almost too many to count, and yellow throated warblers, Louisiana waterthrush with their dulcet call, even one blue-winged warbler on a shrubby streambank. Maybe it's the scale of all of that protected land that allows for so many breeding birds, signs of nests and visions of orioles taking out the fecal sacs from their nests. Despite the sad state of shredded streambanks, birding in the Current River country is certainly rewarding.

Monday, May 29, 2017

A Woodland in Maintenance Mode

On March 23, 1983, this 61 acre woodland was set on fire for the first time in many years. It was an easy burn technically, just as it was in November 2016: one primary hill surrounded by steep draws and a glade on the northeast corner. This area has seen regularly occurring fire since 1983, often incorporated as part of a larger unit, sometimes on its own, but regular fire courses through it like clockwork. When my Audubon chapter Field Trip Coordinator asked if I would lead a fieldtrip in May, of course I suggested taking the long drive to this beautiful area.

Stepping out of the cars on a cloudy late May morning, a day with a forecast of torrential rain, we heard the prairie warblers as clearly as a trilling bell. Our birding hike through this burn unit turned into a botany class with so many rich woodland and glade plants in full flower that it was hard for some in our group to fathom that all of it is naturally occurring. I recall several fieldtrips where I have been asked about seed mixes, how much seed does it take to produce an area like this. Zero, none, no seeds have been added to this lovely woodland complex.

Quite different story from where I spent the bulk of my week. I attended a great workshop in this completely manufactured landscape. Imagine if you will a place unlike any natural setting where plants only found in backwater sloughs in North Missouri are growing next to plants that are only found in Ozark fens. Or rare plants known from two locations in Missouri growing in a garden setting. This artificial setting was disturbing at best from a natural community ecologist's position where plant conservation is tied to natural community protection. But then there's a side to plant conservation where growing in a garden setting is just as good or better than the natural community protection.

It's a political divide between plant conservation and ecosystem protection. I frankly think it's.....something.....to collect seeds from highly conservative plants, the ones with C values of 7-10 and then grow them in a garden to collect an Element of Occurrence record from them. While I would hate to see, for example, Solidago gattengeri to go extinct, I would much prefer to know that the plant's conservatism resulted in the conservation of degraded though restorable glades rather than the efforts of garden ladies in St. Louis who had success with their rich soils. It begs the question, one which made me leave the native plant society many years ago--if the plants disappear, we can just replant them from seeds, so the actions of our misinformed management will go unchallenged, we can just plant the seeds of the plants you want to see. A zoo setting. A botanical garden rather than a high quality ecosystem. To hell with proper ecosystem management if you can just play Johnny Appleseed on the landscape.

Move to Friday night at my grocery store where I was stocking up on wine and Greek yogurt for the weekend and found growing quite happily in their bioswale (installed because they just put in a gas station where I get great fuel points) a lovely specimen of Carex muskingumensis, known from remnant high quality sites in North Missouri. And now, thanks to the plant trade, known from the damned parking lot at my Gerbes store. And it's doing great. Natural community conservation and management is a lot harder than gardening. I'm actually glad to hear that propagating New Jersey tea is difficult. It should be. This high C value plant should only be seen in high quality areas like the one we visited this weekend. And it was everywhere there. What happens when the native plants propagated from genetics of who knows where in the Ozarks translocate to an equally high quality native landscape? And it takes off? To hell with the scientific value of native genetics.
Native plant gardening is fine in areas surrounded by destroyed native habitat, but please don't bring in "native plants" near intact systems. It's all very disruptive and disturbing at the same time. So which of my photos are from native plant gardens? None of them, they're all from a high quality ecosystem, an irreplaceable ecosystem that cannot be "replanted" once it's gone.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Turtles Crossing, Slow Down

I remember exactly where I was on Rt. BB outside of Montreal when I pulled over to the shoulder to move my first box turtle from the road. I was on my way to open the gates as part of my job description. I needed to be on Hwy D by 6:45am to open gates, and there I was at 6:30 pulling over on the road to move not one but two box turtles who were booking their way across the road. At the crest of the hill, I pulled my Honda Civic over to the tiny shoulder so I could get out and hike the road to move the turtles. I really didn't know how to operate my new-to-me 1995 stick shift Honda Civic. I certainly didn't know what to do when I encountered a hill in Arkansas and asked a stranger to drive my car to the top of the hill so I could continue on my journey. I bought that car without knowing how to drive it from a mechanic in Westwego, Louisiana who said that he didn't rag out that clutch too bad, dawg. Great car. It has 325K miles on it at this time.

So I pulled over to the small shoulder and at the time I didn't know that when a stick shift car is on a hill, one needs to put it in a certain gear with the emergency brake. No, I had barely learned how to drive the damned thing before I migrated to Missouri. I thought I was going to need a heat lamp for the engine, with no clue about the severity of the winters here. My supervisor laughed when I asked about that. So, when I saw the turtles I pulled over to the shoulder and just turned off the car so I could walk back down the road to move them. I moved the turtles to a safe place, and when I turned around, my car was moving down the slope and ended up in a ditch. Shit. No cell phone service, I didn't know a soul in Missouri besides my employer, I was already late opening the gates. Eventually a truck came by and saw me in my stupid uniform standing next to my 1995 Honda Civic that was pretty well entrenched into the ditch. As most kind Ozarkers will do, the guy in the truck asked if I needed help. After a big description about how I was moving turtles and my car migrated downslope he sort of laughed, and hitched a rope to some mechanism on my car that allowed it to be towed back out to BB. He had to be on his way and I asked if I could pay him or send him a check or something, but he laughed and said "just keep on saving those turtles." He laughed heartily, so I think he was pulling my proverbial string. Thank heavens for men with trucks and rope in the Ozarks. Since that time in 2003 I have been saved twice more by men in trucks. They never take my money, but I have been able to pay at least one in wild blackberries.

So, after a good rain in the spring the box turtles start crossing the roads. I don't think they're migrating, I think they're looking for the warmth of the road but they always seem so persistent in their direction. It's definitely the worst part of spring, driving Ozark roads and seeing box turtles trying to cross--the good people slow down and avoid them, or pull over to move them. The black-hearted people go out of their way and onto the shoulder to run over them. When you see a dead turtle on a shoulder, that's not just a regular highway death, that's someone who went off the road to kill a turtle. There's a special place in hell for people who do that. Anyway, it's heartbreaking to see so many turtles on the road.

Because they don't move very quickly, turtles are easy to avoid hitting if the driver is paying attention. We avoided 6 turtles today on a short drive from Columbia to Camdenton. I've talked to the head herpetologist in the state and, to date, there is no one measuring the impacts of road mortality on population dynamics in Missouri. I've seen hideous reports from Florida of road mortality on herpetofauna that resulted in the county making more friendly roadways and such. Our box turtles are so ubiquitous that initiating any kind of legislation to protect them is pie in the sky. I love encountering Eastern box turtles and while I recognize that road mortality must be playing a huge role in their sustainability, I like to think that when they exist in natural areas they are well protected and can perform their entire life cycle in the Ozarks.