Friday, October 13, 2017

As Fall as Texarkana

I grew up in the Deep South, a region that never saw real seasonal changes. Sure, the stores would roll out all of their Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas decorations which were posted all over town, but the decorations were rather anomalous to the weather conditions. A new coat on Christmas morning? We'd wear them even when it was 80 degrees outside because Christmas is "supposed to be cold." Unlike my friends who grew up in colder climates, we never had to wear jackets over our Halloween costumes for trick-or-treating. In fact, I'm wondering if the whole awful trend of skimpy "sexy pirate," "sexy barmaid" and other icky Halloween costumes developed precisely because Halloween in the Deep South never witnessed cold weather in October .

I distinctly recall wearing a velour jogging suit to school in October, a nice teal suit that I received as a birthday present in mid-September. The morning temperatures, clammy and wet but cool, were long gone by noon when the ambient temperatures hit the lower 90s. The new velour suit's teal threads covered my bare skin thanks to all the sweating that occurred throughout the school day. I think about the desire to see fall color, the kind of fall color that we watched on the Charlie Brown's The Great Pumpkin, where leaves of yellow and red would gently fall to the ground and one could wear a turtleneck without sweating. It never happened in fall where I grew up. We routinely traveled day trips to Bard Springs, around Shady Lake in Arkansas in mid-October hoping to see fall color, which never happened. Fall color where I lived only occurred in early December, and only because of the proliferation of the exotic and horribly invasive tallow trees that painted the landscape in red and yellow leaves long after Thanksgiving. Each fall when I make that horrible drive home to Louisiana for Thanksgiving, I'm always shocked at the green leaves on the trees starting around Texarkana.

As early as five years ago, peak fall color in Missouri occurred the second week of October. Cabins were open for business, fall color tours were in full swing, rides along the KATY Trail were ridiculously popular--all to catch a glimpse of fall colors in Missouri. It was reliable: leaf drop happened the third week of October, so we could start putting in firelines by late October, units ready to burn by the end of trout season. This year in particular, the timeline is way off.

I've visited North Missouri and the Central Ozarks in recent weeks and the trees are still full of green leaves, maybe some browning from drought, but certainly not a 'fall color' brown. I admit that I haven't taken the scenic drive along Hwy. 100 or Hwy. 94 in the past few weeks, both drives full of maples that usually put on an explosive fall color show, so I can't report on those areas. However, on my daily walks around the block with my schnauzer, the maples in my neighborhood are still rocking green leaves. Lately, I am reminded of my childhood when we drove through Arkansas in October looking for fall color and turning around at Maumelle because we just weren't seeing it. Missouri is like that these days.

Community gardeners in my neighborhood planted spinach seeds a couple of weeks ago and expect a full harvest. My kale continues to produce big healthy leaves and the peppers are ripening on the bushes. The seed ticks are still out, though not as prolific as they were in August. Our USDA growing zone has shifted in recent years; the Missouri Botanical Gardens can now plant camellias outside in the ground, unheard of thirty years ago.

Tomorrow we set out on the KATY Trail for the Hartsburg Pumpkin Festival. Temperatures are scheduled to skyrocket to the low 90s and we must return before dark to avoid a tornado outbreak. I don't think this part of Missouri will have a great fall color display the way our weather patterns are behaving. My windows are still open and my daily attire consists of running shorts and a t-shirt. Last year's mild winter resulted in an explosion of Japanese beetles; entire trees and grapevines were completely denuded of leaves. If the growing zones are really moving northwards, I wonder how many years it will take before we can have year-round pepper plants like we had in New Orleans?

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Late Summer in the Woodlands

Today marks the end of my birthday week full of celebrations and parties. The first day of autumn with the high temperature of 96 was reminiscent of that one week in August we witnessed this year--hot and dry, no rain in sight. But the shadows are growing long and the walnut leaves are all but gone from the trees. Cooler weather moves in this week, but not cold enough to knock out seed ticks. Cross country hiking requires a lot of duct tape and long pants.

Despite the dry weather, the floral display in woodlands and glades continues with the beginning of the asters, the desmodiums, the goldenrods. Monarch migration also marches on, with these charismatic and troubled butterflies swarming the woodlands in Dauphin Island and still in my backyard, feasting on the silphiums. With the lack of rain, some of our canopy trees are merely turning brown and dropping leaves, bypassing the nice fall color stage altogether. We're still about three weeks away from "peak color," and hopefully the cooler nights will usher in the good conditions for a nice display this October.

Katydids are still out in force and fall orchids are in peak bloom! Every fall I have to brush up the different ladies' tresses orchids, like this beauty, Spiranthes lacera, notable for the green lip on the inside of each flower.

And so, the natural cycle continues. It's time to dust off burn plans and start putting in firelines. The priority units are set, folks have been instructed to test all of their equipment as there's little worse than showing up to a fire having all of the driptorches malfunction from lack of maintenance, worn out wicks, clogged intakes. Well, leaking waterpacks are pretty bad, and dull chainsaw chains are also lousy. Warm season grasses continue to cure, painting glades and high quality woodlands in reds and yellows interspersed with all kinds of asters. I'm waiting for that first frost and the Indian summer days to move in so I can go backpacking without seed ticks on the horizon.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Streambanks in September

Ker-plunk! The walnut from high above fell swiftly and loudly into the water along the shoreline. Walnut and hickory leaves are all turning yellow and flying into the air, too, as Labor Day arrives. Last week, as the mild temperatures continued in the Ozarks because of the high pressure dome that tragically stalled out Hurricane Harvey in Texas, I started my streambank sampling. Cardinal flowers and ageratum were in full bloom, and the otters were out because there was no one else on the river that day. The morning cicadas hummed along while the temperatures escalated to a high of the low 80s. All of these things are signs that fall is near, though not officially until after my mid-September birthday. Shorter days, darker mornings, the slowing of the katydid chorus all mark this time of year. Seed ticks are, of course, still out and won't go away until the first frost. I welcome Indian summer.

My 45th birthday is in mid-September, a time to set new goals and objectives for the year ahead. This year I plan to spend my birthday with my childhood best friend who lives in Dauphin Island, Alabama (barring a tropical storm, depression or hurricane that week). She's the first of my friends to allow me to bring my motley crew of old dogs to stay in her mother-in-law cottage that rests behind her beachfront property. And so, in a couple of weeks we'll make the 12 hour drive with my 12 year old Bassett Hound, unknown-aged Phantom Schnauzer, and the perenially fussy 17 year old rat terrier, all three of whom were inherited after my mother's death in 2012. Three high maintenance dogs make travel quite the hassle, sometimes an impossibility, but paying for a full-time pet sitter is out of my financial reach. Unfortunately, they require a lot of maintenance, the exact opposite of my dart frogs. And so, we're packing up the pups, picking up some Pinckney Bend gin from New Haven and driving to Dauphin Island for four days of summer weather -beach weather- in mid-September.

With all of the blooming yellow composites ranging from Rudbeckia laciniata to Verbesina, the skippers and hummingbirds have a veritable feast. Glades are also awash in late summer wildflowers, especially Missouri coneflower and various species of blazing stars. But the streambanks, accessed by canoe via clean, fast-moving Ozark streams are hard to beat for botanical richness this time of year. The Niangua River from Bennett to Ho-Humm is particularly rich, a good 8 mile float trip that one can accomplish in a day quite easily, even if stopping to botanize and fish along the way. Kids are back in school, day lengths are shorter, the wood ducks are still swimming along the shorelines and kingfishers and bald eagles still feel like they're being chased downstream even if one isn't paddling their boat very hard.

Today is Labor Day and American Oystercatchers grace my Audubon calendar for the month of September. I haven't started thinking about the logistics of my Halloween costume which I feel certain, regardless of how great it is, will not win the work costume contest. I don't have any friends at work, and the green M&M wins every year. Same person, same costume, same lack of originality, same $50 gift card. Nevertheless, despite all of that I anticipate a trip towards St. James for Public House's Oktoberfest and the ability to pick up some Concords. Later in the month I retrieve my Norton juice so I can make my first batch of Norton wine!

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Fall Migration

At 5:30 this morning, the sun had not begun to avail itself through the boughs of my front yard walnut. It seems like only a few weeks ago that the sun streaming through my open windows at 5:15 every morning brought on the morning cicada chorus and warm, sunny weather by 6:00. This morning at 5:30 I had to employ a flashlight to navigate to my hummingbird feeders for refilling; I made the sugar water overnight and wanted to make sure the popular backyard feeders were full at daybreak. The downy woodpeckers enjoy feasting on the ants that the sugar water attracts, and with four feeders scattered throughout the length of my deep lot, the hummingbirds are well fed. This time of year also corresponds to an entire backyard full of yellow blooming cup plant, a major attractant to not only hummingbirds but bumble bees and native sweat bees.

For the past few weeks, unable to spend much time outside, I've tracked fall bird migration through the nighttime radar maps. Migration is largely triggered by daylength, and birds travel mostly at night. Last night, Jim Cantore of The Weather Channel reported that the eye of Hurricane Harvey was filled with thousands of migrating birds, a phenomenon that also happened during Hurricane Matthew. My local Audubon chapter posted this interesting Citizen Science link that tracks the hummingbird migration. Evidently it's well underway in our area. As long as the hummingbirds continue to feed, keep your feeders up. If you have the great fortune to visit Portal, Arizona this fall, you'll be delighted to know that homeowners allow random birders into their yards to witness activity at their feeders. On a trip a couple of years ago, I saw 6 species of hummingbirds--many feeding on the red cactus flowers, but swarming around backyard feeders. Some homeowners ask for a small donation to help cover the cost of sugar water.

Even though there is abundant native food, mainly insects and berries, in the neighborhood, I started filling my seed feeders a couple of weeks ago. Most of my friends in my Audubon chapter feed seed all year; I don't have the budget for that. Nevertheless, goldfinches and chickadees, woodpeckers and gray catbirds, are all enjoying the country mix. To boot, the catbirds have stripped my enormous pokeweed of all of its dark purple berries, resulting in violet water in my birdbath.

I am not ready for the winter months ahead, days when I leave my house in the dark and come home from work in the dark. I never get enough exercise in the dark days and nights of winter. Thankfully, there are still plenty of blooming composites, great birding, warm afternoons and the coming of grape harvest.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

In the St. Francois Mountains

On May 8, 2009, in the middle of the day, straight line winds in excess of 100mph ripped through the Ozark Highlands and toppled the largely wooded canopy across approximately 150 miles. The wind event, labeled as a derecho (pronounced both in the proper Spanish pronunciation and the Americanized version), was predicted by Drew and the other fine folks at Springfield NOAA. This storm that brought us a bow echo wind event resulted in not only flattened trees across thousands of acres, but damaged buildings, closed roads and caused power outages for at least a week if not more.

While many private and public landowners began salvage logging all of the red oak, black oak and scattered white oak that had fallen during the storm, some landowners left the downed trees to let nature take its course, beetle food, natural decomposition and all. Deep in the heart of the St. Francois Mountains this one area that did not see heavy equipment rip up the soil and damage the understory has served as a lesson in recovery through the years. Looking at the original General Land Office survey records, one can read about the abundance of hazelnut shrubs in the midstory and a scattered post oak and shortleaf pine overstory that existed before intensive settlement of the area began in the mid-1800s. Visiting the areas that did not see the wind event, one may be hard pressed to find hazelnut and pine, and, after many years of open range grazing and fire suppression, there is an explosion of a red oak-black oak component that does not coincide with the historic character. But visit the regenerating woodlands that have now been managed with infrequent fire, witnessed no salvage logging, and allowed to regenerate naturally, and one will find a canopy and midstory composition much in line with the historic survey records.

And so, in summer 2017, the pines are skyrocketing, the post oak-white oak shrubs are maturing into trees, and looking out across the landscape, from a long view at least, it's difficult to discern that 90% of the canopy had been uprooted by that windstorm. On the ground, hiking the maintained Ozark Trail, the shrub layer is dense and thick and in need of a prescribed fire to encourage the canopy trees and to knock back some of the dense thickets of black gum, drought stressed last week and already turning red.

The hazelnut shrubs are producing a bumper crop of nuts which must be absolutely great for the black bear population down there. The brush is so thick and dense, but the canopy trees that were felled by the windstorm are melting thanks to successive fires and sheer time. Shrubland birds thrive here, with a cacophony of towhees and yellow-breasted chats surrounding us as we duct taped off the thousands of seed ticks littering our trouser legs. The area spared from salvage logging is a din of bird life, insect life, good forb diversity and blooming goldenrods and blazing stars. Resiliency in our highest quality areas is possible if we don't mess with them too much.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Sampling during Seed Tick Season

I think I need to write to the Duct Tape company and explain to them how grateful I am for their product. Thanks to Duct Tape, I can wrap my ankles and throw a slab of tape onto my thigh so that when I hit seed ticks, I can immediately capture them onto the tape, folding them into death. I am generally a compassionate person, really I am, but when the creature bound for my ankles, thighs, waist, entire body is a seed tick, I will gladly remove them from my trousers with Duct Tape. I can't live without Duct Tape during seed tick season. With one swat of duct tape to the trousers, one can capture hundreds of seed ticks, all vectors for disease.

But vegetation sampling season is well underway, coinciding with seed tick season. On a routine basis, I bust through the tall warm season grasses and perennial forbs to track species richness in burn units, but I check my trousers every couple of steps for masses of seed ticks. Duct tape is vital, along with horrible chemicals that are undoubtedly increasing my chances of cancer just by spraying them onto my clothes. But when the ticks hit my clothes that have been treated with this horrible carcinogen, they die rather than scatter all over me. Tick disease or clothes soaked in known carcinogens? It's kind of a battle, one that all of us working in the field deal with on a daily basis. Knowing that the deer population in my sampling site was out of control, super high numbers of deer, I opted for soaking my trousers in the carcinogen and I remained tick-free. Hopefully anyone else who uses this toxic chemical will recognize that it is not meant for human contact, that clothes must be treated and dried for two hours before wearing. Safe chemical? Hell no. This is toxic as toxic gets.

But sampling must occur, and without late July sampling events, one will miss out on seeing Hexalectris spicata, an orchid that shows up in early restoration on a glade after cedar removal. Stop hiking during July and you'll miss seeing all the invertebrates, the blooming Silphium and Vernonia, the orchids and all of the bees, butterflies and other blooming plants. Seed ticks are horrible, yes, and mature ticks can be deadly, yes, so make sure you wear long trousers, tape your ankles with Duct Tape, spray the dickens of horrible chemical onto your clothes, but not while you're wearing them. Don't wear shorts and flip flops. Seed tick season is definitely here and it's a bad one, one with no previous winter to speak of to kill off adult ticks. I still can't figure out if seed ticks are vectors for disease, I see alternating articles on the topic. I do know that they itch horribly and leave red welts behind their bite. To enjoy the Ozarks during seed tick season, one must be prepared to manage them. One stray blade of grass along a trail and you'll be hit with a slug of ticks. Carry Duct Tape. Wear Duct Tape. But the natural world is blooming with such spectacular flowers that it would be a shame to wait until the first frost to go for a hike.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

In the Throes of Summer

When I see the open air pitched tents in a parking lot, it's my signal to pull over to see what the farmers in the area are offering that day. Farmer's markets and impromptu truck stands have popped up all over the state in recent years. And now, in late July, they're all awash in beautiful tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, and green beans. Summer produce season is definitely one of my favorite times of the year: there's a "no cooking" rule in my house from the first 95 degree day until the beginning of fall's cooler temperatures. I've been gorging on peaches and blackberries and caprese salads--huge slabs of slicer tomatoes, basil from my garden, mozzarella cheese and balsamic vinegar. Because my yard is too shady to grow anything other than a few herbs and Red Russian kale, I always carry some cash to stop in on local growers.

With all the richness of flowering plants in our natural communities, with the great bounty of fantastic produce also comes a flush of growth of exotic species and the cone of death that comes with treatment. My growing season months aren't always spent traipsing through nice woodlands and glades collecting data. They also include a bit of time spraying horrible chemicals and cutting and stump treating exotic species. It's an awful part of summer that requires long sleeves, a respirator and the sad fate of the flora surrounding exotic species. I try to be surgical, not using the spray setting on a backpack sprayer and often using the glove treatment when, for example, there are a handful of sprigs of sericea surrounded by scurfy pea and other nice natives. But it's difficult and often, despite explicit instruction, there will be practitioners who would rather be done with the job with an empty sprayer so broadcast more chemical than is necessary and without as much regard to the plants we want to preserve. Herbicide application is a very scary aspect of community management; one wrong chemical, one trigger-happy practitioner and an entire area can be killed, leaving bare ground to be colonized by more weeds. It's actually quite scary, sending crews out with sprayers. Sweet clover? I pull it. Johnson grass? Cut and stump treat. Multiflora rose and bush honeysuckle? Cut and stump treat. Yes, it's more time consuming, but it helps to keep the collateral damage down and it's a great way to spend October and November while the leaves are still green and sticking out like a sore thumb.