Sunday, April 19, 2015

Degraded, but not totally trashed

After I pitched camp, I hiked upslope and onto a glade. Evidenced by the spare vegetation in the surrounding woodlands and the scattered stands of buckbrush, the area had clearly seen a lot of grazing in the not too distant past. The old hogwire fencing at the toeslope only reiterated what was notable in the vegetation. But it was a dolomite glade in late March and the longer daylengths allowed for exploration well into evening hours.

Thick, rank warm season grasses still mantle the slope, holding glade soils intact. In other, more degraded settings, the rooting and wallowing caused by hogs and continuous pressure of hooves and grazing by cattle often result in worse ecological conditions. Throughout the glade mapping process, I visited hundreds of glades ranging from medium quality to absolutely destroyed. Yes, cedar invasion is one sign of overgrazing followed by fire suppression, but some glades have been so damaged that very little soil remains, leaving behind rock rubble and scattered annual forbs that reseed easily (parking lot plants, for example, like Leavenworthia uniflora down in the White River Hills or Arennaria patula on dolomite).

So, the grazing history on this glade wasn't nearly as severe as I've seen in similar settings throughout Missouri. While this glade suffers from serious damage, there were still some remnant spring forbs and, most importantly for the recoverability, the prairie grass matrix persists. A cedar removal project and some old fashioned fire would undoubtedly help restore the glade, but unfortunately, as is the case with thousands of glades in Missouri, once the conservative elements have been sniffed out and rooted up, they do not magically return. It is because of the long history of grazing that so many of our plants are conservative now. Even Julian Steyermark noted this. But the grass will help to rebuild the soil and work to repair the damage. If the glade lacked a thick grass component, I wouldn't even think of suggesting restoration--the damage is usually too severe, fire can't carry without grass, and so forth.

But it was sunset, and the screech owls were starting to call and saw my first of the year Viola pedata in full flower, the basal leaves of an Indian paintbrush, a draba or two. Not all of our intact natural communities are as resilient as this area may prove to be, the damage across the Ozarks from years of open range grazing is severe. While the glade soil is not as deep and rich as on some of the lesser-grazed glades in the area, there's still soil here. And grass--a lot of crummy Sporobolus neglectus that inhabits areas of damage, yes. But some semblance of restoration potential.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Central Plateau in Early April

Stepping out of my 365K miles strong-1995 Honda Civic onto a crunchy warm season grass mat, I was met this week with a cold wind, a wind bitter enough to make me wear a stupid fleece jacket even though the forecast was for temperatures in the upper 70s and sun--rare, rare sun. I do like the field verification of glades I've mapped, to step onto these areas that I've seen from multiple iterations of aerial photos ranging from Google Earth to infrared layers on ArcGIS and all, to see the glade on the ground. So, even though it was a casual hike through the Central Plateau on a cloudy day for a determined purpose that was not glade verification, the glade verification fit in quite nicely while I encountered some lovely spring flora along the way.

There isn't a lot of public land in the Gasconade country, even though the river valley represents some of the largest (the second largest, to be precise) concentrations of glades and intact post oak woodlands with river frontage. Not a lot of development in these parts, which is great in some aspects, but cause for concern in others, such as the lack of regulatory oversight for development, regulation on recreation that can cause serious streambank erosion and sheeting, and so forth. I can't do anything about it, of course, so I enjoy it while it exists. Large expanses of glade-woodland complexes of the Roubidoux Formation and Gasconade dolomite, undoubtedly the most common geologic structures in the Ozarks that still have a forest canopy. Oh, there's logging, of course there's logging, but still lots of intact woods. And glades.

As mentioned previously, and a million times before, the bottoms in Missouri are usually just chocked full of spring wildflowers. I was seriously saddened to see an eight mile stretch of riverine forest covered in garlic mustard, but there's no stopping the inevitable homogenization of our landscapes. I had to pull about thirty garlic mustard plants to frame this picture of a bluebell. They'll all disappear unless someone does something. But nothing will happen and in three years I won't be able to come here to take photos of bluebells. I guess I'll seek them out in gardens in Columbia, all surrounded by bush honeysuckle pruned to be a landscaped shrub.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Backpacking in Late March

The world is coming alive now after a long winter's nap. By late March, fire season was officially over in my playbook, so it was time to hit the trail for early spring backpacking. The screech owls have fledged, whinnying all up and down the creekbed, and Eastern phoebes are hawking insects all over warm glade openings before setting up their nests.

I pitched camp early in the day in a wooded bottomland, protected from the fierce south winds and surrounded by blooming spicebush. Just above was a little unmanaged dolomite glade with a few blooming drabas and bird's foot violets, my first of the year. The natural events seem to be on schedule this year, with the songs of Louisiana waterthrush beginning well before the streambank vegetation comes on.

Forested coves are awash in flowers, all taking advantage of the light and longer daylengths, but the fire-mediated dry woodlands and glades also harbor rich floral displays. It's a wonderful time of year when the insects emerge and turkeys gobble. Deep in the valley at my campsite, I didn't hear any traffic noise, just the bare branches of maples rustling together and the early morning bird song. Mourning cloaks were everywhere that warm March day, and really skittish Grapevine Epimenis butterflies were mobbing the scattered flowers in the uplands. Their larvae feed on grapevines, which are abundant in our Ozark woodlands.

Spring is such a fleeting season, the warm rains encouraging an amazing floral display and all the elements of our spectacular natural world renewing itself on its own.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Bloodroot's up. It's spring wildflower time!

Just last week I canvassed a series of really nice dolomite glades looking for a blooming Draba, D. cuneifolia, to be specific. I saw the green blades of false garlic, some basal leaves of Geum in the woods, but the rest of the world was a uniform khaki of post oak leaves and rank warm season grasses. The lawn weeds and little parking lot Brassicas started blooming recently, and just today, hiking up a steep slope on a protected hillside covered in the basal leaves of a rare shooting star, I stumbled onto my first-of-year anemones. Or false rue anemones. Every March I forget which is which.

And so, I return to my wonderful Paul Nelson-illustrated Spring Wildflowers book, used in many places as a coloring book but serving as a great refresher in not only scientific nomenclature--which has probably all changed lately--but in the location of spring wildflowers. Because the book is out of print, with permission of the illustrator, I have scanned all the plates and posted them here for a quick review session before spring wildflower season really ramps up. We're expecting snow this weekend, which is typical, though cruel.

Today's hike took me through really homogeneous Ozark woods of a black oak-red oak character, Roubidoux sandstone-Gasconade dolomite bedrock community, a prized though typical and widespread landscape for timber people. In the unburned condition, these kinds of woods are not very diverse or interesting from a ground flora perspective, but such is the joy of spring wildflower season! One can visit trashed out bottomlands along streams, areas that were once corn fields, and still find spring flora. Unburned, overgrazed, logged woods with some semblance of native diversity and not socked in with bush honeysuckle? You'll still find spring flora. Spring wildflowers are ubiquitous in the Ozarks in Missouri, found even in gravel parking lots where some "rare in Missouri" but widespread in the White River region grow. So, with these longer day lengths, chipping sparrows starting to call, timberdoodles probing for insects, hit up your local woods for some wildflower walks and a dose of long awaited Vitamin D.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Hints of Spring

I heard the first-of-year spring peeper and chorus frog chorus last week, tiny little secretive frogs just cranking out their breeding calls from an abandoned farm pond--no more stocked bass or cattle here, just an amphibian breeding pool these days. Timberdoodles are back in business in that gradient between old field and woodland, or, in more intact systems, glade edges. However, the spate of warm weather we've enjoyed for a few days has left us again, boding well for fire season. It's too early in much of the northern reaches of the Ozarks for even harbinger of spring to flower, that early spring wildflower that inhabits low-lying woodlands (some of the first landscapes to see green growth). Hopefully, we'll dry out again and be able to at least burn off a glade here and there before spring green up and before the snakes come out for basking.

Henbit--that sweet non-native purple mint flower common in agricultural fields-- is flowering throughout the region in fallow fields and yards, along with all the other fun lawn weeds like Veronica comosa and the early mustards. I canvassed a wide glade landscape on the Springfield Plateau yesterday and saw no blooming Drabas, just a few early leaves of false garlic and one basal leaf of a Delphinium. This week's cool and rainy conditions will keep all the fun spring flora underground for a few days more, potentially allowing for good fire conditions.

Spring vegetation (as in aquatic springs) is beginning to green up in our streams. Last year, I missed the flowering period of water willow, that lovely Justicia whose flowers resemble a grass pink orchid, just a pretty little thing that lines the banks of our nicer streams. And I won't miss bloodroot in flower this year, either. Friends in northwest Louisiana are already seeing yellow trout lilies in flower, three days before the equinox. We still have a couple of weeks of March weather in Missouri. Did you know that March is historically the snowiest month in Missouri?

Sunday, March 08, 2015

March Fire Season

This weekend's clement temperatures and bright sunlight sent thoughts of my spring garden coursing through my head. My starter pots of kale, cilantro, and arugula are now outside under a protective cage to protect them from squirrel and robin plundering. With the snowpack melting, the flashy fuels recovering from weeks of moisture, the first hint of daffodil greenery availing itself, this week is shaping up to be ideal conditions for prescribed fire in many parts of the Ozarks.

In a preferred situation, the weather will remain on the cool side with drying days to allow for light intensity fires to course through landscapes to allow light to the woodland floor. While there are certain practitioners implementing fire in a destructive pattern, there should be much appreciation for the conscientious fire managers who burn for ecological health, to emulate a natural disturbance process that gave rise to our heterogeneous landscapes in the Ozarks. Check in with the NOAA Fire Weather Spot Forecast here to see if your favorite places are burning this March.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Great Backyard Bird Count Underway!

[Photo: Missouri resident Gary Mueller submitted this charming photo of his lego bird feeder the national project, and his photo is gaining national attention....]The annual Great Backyard Bird Count is in its third day now, and so far, Missouri birdwatchers have documented 125 species! Visit here to explore the data collected in Missouri. It's not too late to join the count and start submitting checklists. It's fun to see that my friend in Troy has documented 41 species, making him ranked #6 in species totals. A Columbia birder in my Audubon chapter has seen 36 species, so she's in the top ten for species richness, too. What better way to spend a very cold weekend than watching birds flock to your feeders to devour your seed?