Friday, March 17, 2017

The Nature of the Unnatural

Earlier last week, I set out for the Ozarks for two days of checking firelines. Driving south on a 30 degree morning in early March, I noticed very little green on the landscape. The roadside fescue was starting to green up, henbit had turned tilled fields into swaths of lavender flowers, but along a long stretch of the 150 mile route, the roadsides were a homogeneous deciduous winter brown. Well, winter brown interspersed with a few cedars and the stark white billowing flowers of Bradford pear trees, trees that stuck out sickly sweet from the otherwise winter landscape.

Around seven years ago, I had heard that Bradford pears, the fast-growing non-native landscape tree that always maintains a perfect lollipop tree stature, were showing up deep in the Ozarks in vegetation sampling plots. Efforts to eradicate them from disturbed areas continue, but landscapers still choose this flowering and fruiting tree for horticultural instant gratification. And now they're spreading everywhere. On March 8, they were the only flowering tree on the landscape barring the early bud break of serviceberry, mostly found in nicer intact woods and certainly not as prevalent as the persistent Bradford pears along the highway. In fact, during two days of hiking through high quality natural areas, I only encountered a couple serviceberries in flower, always among the first of the native spring trees to bloom, usually three to four weeks earlier than dogwood.

Considering that so much of our landcover has been disturbed by logging, grazing, interruption of natural fire regimes and development encroachment, it came as no surprise that I could take this classic photo of what would happen if we stopped managing our native places and allowed homogenization to occur on a landscape scale. Dominant plants to include bush honeysuckle, Bradford pear and cedars with nothing in the understory, and any native flora clipped off by Missouri's ever-burgeoning deer population, maybe some scattered plants like broomsedge, wintercreeper, and the weedier Geum. But this was on a roadside next to a grocery store which I had stopped into for plain Greek yogurt and some peanuts for the field.

Nevertheless, with so much development pressure in the Ozarks, fragmentation, lack of fire, and exotics (and deer overpopulation), many of our native settings are turning into this. Away from the lot next to the grocery and in a 17,000 acre nature preserve to conduct browse surveys, I encountered cedar trees that had been browsed so heavily by deer in the absence of other food that they looked like alien trees. When you encounter a cedar that looks like this, there may be too many damned deer.

Unnatural levels of deer herbivory as a direct result of too many deer on the landscape, the lack of predators and increased biogeographical islands being formed by development pressure will result in serious overbrowsing. At least I only saw serviceberry and some scattered spring ephemerals in flower here rather than a greening out understory of bush honeysuckle and Bradford pear.

So, as is customary of exotics in the Ozarks and elsewhere, the Bradford pears and bush honeysuckle were triggered to break dormancy because of the warm weather. With climate change occurring on our clock, the warm spells in February and the first week of March lasted a lot longer and were warmer than in years past. But the bulk of the natives seem to be smarter than to come out when the threat (and reality) of 15 degree nights are still probable and likely in March, our traditionally snowiest month, with the last frost-free date not until mid-April. The shading out of the woodland floor by bush honeysuckle and the allelopathic nature of the rootstock are the precise reasons landowners in the Ozarks need to be worried about this wave of a closed canopy-thriving exotic shrub. Our spring wildflower displays are usually so incredible because the spring wildflowers are able to break through the leaf litter during early spring because there is no shading from the oak and hickory-dominated canopy. Bush honeysuckle puts an end to that.

This week, when the temperatures plummeted to the teens and highs just barely above freezing, the Bradford pear flowers all burned, straight to brown. Every time I see a browned out Bradford pear, I smile, knowing that now that the flowers are toast, they probably won't be pollinated, which means this year they won't produce fruit, which means birds won't spread the seed at least this one year. Sadly, the bush honeysuckle is still thriving. Passive management just may not cut it anymore if we want to keep natural areas full of native nature.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

In Search of Timberdoodles

The reports of the arrival of woodcocks began a few weeks ago in Missouri. These charismatic birds are a signature sign of early spring, small, brown birds, the size of a quail, with a long, black probing beak that can penetrate the roughest soils to find insects. In the Ozarks and elsewhere, woodcocks are also known as Timberdoodles, birds that hang around old fields near the timber line. They're not the most gracious birds, flitting about as gracefully as a Northern bobwhite quail, but when they arrive, it usually means spring is around the corner so they're always a welcome sight. Their big black eyes and long beak are hard to mistake for any other bird, but their breeding behavior is really quite spectacular.

For the past four years, my Audubon chapter has set out at sunset in perfect timberdoodle habitat to find these birds and to witness their mating dance. In the past four years, we've seen decreasing numbers of these charismatic birds, due to either the habitat being overgrown and without fire or a general decline in their numbers across the board. Missing the timberdoodle isn't likely due to observer error, this bird makes it abundantly clear when present. With a characteristic "peent!" call, the timberdoodle will call from a woodland edge or another scrubby, shrubby area. Our traditional birding site is an old farm field with rank warm season grasses and scattered cedars. The whole area is reverting to woodland with lots of trees moving in, which is good for woodland birds but not so good for the timberdoodles.

We set out at 5:30 and hiked to the junction of the trail where we've traditionally seen these birds flutter high in the sky and then plummet down in accordance with the traditional mating ritual. The shrubby area played host to a lot of lingering white-throated sparrows and the sunset calls of the American robin were definitely part of the evening soundtrack. We saw one song sparrow with that big blotch on his chest, and then started playing a recording of the timberdoodle call: "Peent!" "Peent!" No answer. A barred owl started calling with the customary "Who Cooks for You!" call, but no woodcocks. With so many old fields in the Ozarks these birds should be in good shape from a habitat perspective, but through time, as we're seeing at our traditional birding site, the habitat is disappearing. I think that traditionally these birds used savannas, areas of open grown oaks with a thick grass-forb layer. This landscape type is uncommon now, and for birds, the surrogate is old fields.

There are areas around our traditional timberdoodle stomping grounds that still offer ample woodcock habitat. These areas are managed with regularly occurring prescribed fire to keep the woody brush at bay while stimulating the herbaceous layer. I do love timberdoodles like I adore Chuck will's-widow and Whip-por-wills, signs of the Ozarks and of spring. This ancient breeding ritual continues in shrublands across the Ozark Highlands, so hopefully you'll see it soon. While March is our snowiest month, even the natives have been triggered that spring thaw is near.

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!