Sunday, January 07, 2018

Winter Birding

My eBird lists are few and far between. This year I promise I will add more to my eBird account, but in the meantime, I'm busy tallying up the results of four Christmas Bird Counts and three winter bird surveys. It's been a cold couple of weeks with birding beginning at 7am some days and 7 degrees. Yesterday's birding trip in the Outer Ozark Border must have been the most clement with temperatures reaching 17 degrees. Heatwave!

Winter birding is probably the best activity for beginning birders. There are only a finite amount of species that avail themselves during winter months. Yesterday in an open grassland setting, I was able to have clear views of American tree sparrows, about 6 of them, and never before had I witnessed such great views. The gray V on the chest was clearly visible--they're kind of like the winter version of the chipping sparrow with the rusty cap. We also saw four red-headed woodpeckers, and 24 other species. It's nice birding in the winter because there are no leaves on the trees and the birds are much easier seen. I try to recruit novices during winter months precisely because winter birding is so easy.

With the end of the Christmas Bird Count last week, we may start seeing migration of our feathered friends. National Geographic magazine listed 2018 as the Year of the Bird, coinciding with the 100th Anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a protective measure that is slowly being undermined by our national political scene. But next up in the Citizen Science realm is the Great Backyard Bird Count! This event occurs during President's Day weekend in February and includes realtime tallies across the country. It's a fun event and I'll be participating by not only visiting my local state park but also my yard, hoping for more diversity than I've had lately. My bald male cardinal is a regular visitor, and I don't have starlings, but I have a homogeneous assortment of white throated and exotic sparrows with a few doves and a black capped chickadee. The downy woodpeckers have worn out my suet feeder so I keep that restocked, as well. Nevertheless, there are some feeder watchers with pine siskins and purple finches and a much greater diversity of species. Yes, I'll be in a native environment for the Great Backyard Bird Count. If you're interested in birdwatching, now is the time to get involved. Birds are easy to see without leaves on the trees and the species count is low. But so rewarding. When I fill my birdbath with warm water every morning, I call it "giving them coffee." I connect with my backyard birds and with all of them I encounter in the woods.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Winter Foraging

This must have been the first time since I lived in New Orleans that as winter solstice arrived, my Christmas tree remained undecorated. I cut down my rangy cedar on December 7 and it stood sentry inside in the corner window without lights, but with a continual supply of fresh water. It wasn't until December 22, the night before I set out for Louisiana, that I wrapped our C7 bulbs around this beautiful cedar and set out about 100 of our favorite old ornaments including many handmade by my grandmother Marie. As a veteran Episcopalian, the tree will remain decorated until Epiphany, the beginning of Carnival. Afterwards, it will join the other (now decaying) Christmas cedars in my brushpile for the white-throated sparrows to hide in as they protect themselves from the neighborhood Cooper's hawk and that awful patrolling orange cat.

Several years ago, I made a discovery at the local Lowe's hardware store that all of the trimmings from their Frazier firs, Douglas firs, and Scotch pines are heaped into huge cardboard boxes and made available for free to anyone who wants the greenery. I make swags for my neighbors, I use the greenery as finishing touches for gift wrapping, and I set it out around the house on bookshelves and window sills. For at least a few days, the house smells like Christmas rather than three dogs. So, by December 7 I at least had greenery and a few Christmas knick knacks scattered around. And then there's my wreath.

Every year in late fall, as native plant material begins to cure, I begin collecting dried material from my yard and from a friend's property nearby to decorate a grapevine wreath I made. Several years ago, I added thick handfuls of beautiful inland sea oats, an aggressive native with persistent drooping khaki seedheads. As I took apart the wreath, I threw all of the material over the porch railing; two years later, I witnessed a big stand of this pretty grass exactly where I threw the dried material. Today, I have my own source of this charismatic dried plant and the goldfinches love it.

I really like finding huge aster bracts (oblongifolius is a good one) and some of the later goldenrods that continue to possess yellow stalks long into winter. In recent years, I've started adding silvery Baptisia stalks. While I'm generally not a fan of big clumps of buckbrush, the berries are really quite pretty though lack real nutrition for birds. Unfortunately, too, multiflora rose possesses multiple rosehips that are a brilliant red. I never add multiflora rosehips because the Carolina wrens often gorge on my wreath seeds and I do not want to be responsible for spreading this horrible plant. New this year is donated river birch bark that a friend gave me; I have quite a bit of it, so it will surely come back next year.

As the days imperceptibly grow longer, thoughts turn to the necessity of our fire regimes for the sustainability of all of these lovely winter stalks. I once read that folks in the Ozarks historically used green Christmas fern fronds for their wreaths because of the lack of cedars. I think next year I might try that.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Christmas Bird Count Begins

Yesterday morning at 7:30, the sun barely crept up above the hills at the nature area I was assigned to canvass for my Audubon chapter's annual Christmas Bird Count. Stepping out of the car and zipping up my coat, I immediately tallied four Northern cardinals, two white-breasted nuthatches, an American goldfinch and a bald eagle flying over head. This annual event takes place between December 14 and January 5 this season, and my chapter traditionally holds our count the first Saturday of the official count period.

Temperatures were a little warmer and the windspeeds picked up a little higher than desired yesterday, but throughout our count circle, Audubon members documented 95 species. At the end of the day, we host a tally party potluck with lots of pots of different kinds of chili, sides and a huge dessert table. We project the checklist onto the cinderblock wall of a local church and go through the list, asking each group how many of each bird species they witnessed during the day. Notable missing species this year was wild turkey. No one saw a wild turkey and Lincoln's sparrow numbers were way down this year. I only counted two white-throated sparrows, which is unheard of for a Christmas Bird Count in our area, but the rest of my team picked up an additional 95 of the little guys.

A city-owned nature area with a stream running through it- complete with thickly vegetated streambanks that held the key to our bird numbers- served as the nucleus of my area, 2 North. Unlike some birders, I'm not loyal to one of the 8 given areas; I like to bounce around and visit new places each year while also helping out the groups that don't have a lot of counters. The leader of my group was home with sick children and continually populated my text messages with accounts of only American robins in his yard, bummed that he couldn't get out. He did finally break away in the afternoon and revisited areas that I missed; it's a good thing he did, too, because I got skunked trying to find our area's brown creeper, a traditional species that certainly inhabits these thick bottomland woodlands. He went out and found one.

The highlight of my morning was the song sparrow on the streambank and the 45 Northern cardinals we saw throughout the day. Area 2N witnessed the most abundant cardinals, black-capped chickadees and red-bellied woodpeckers than any of the other areas. While I realize these are common woodland birds, they remain lovely creatures and it was fun to see one of each every time I hoisted my binoculars to my eyes.

I heard reports last night at the tally party that some of Missouri's other count circles are low on observers. If you're interested in helping out with a Christmas Bird Count, visit here to find a circle.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

A Destructive Trend

In recent months as I hike well-trod trails through the Ozarks, I have noticed an increase in the practice of rock stacking. Historically, this was likely done to blaze a trail or to mark water sources. Today, with increasing hiking pressure in our natural places, visible trails don't necessarily require rock stacking to lead the path. In wilderness, small stacks of rocks to create stream crossings may be necessary for the less hardy wilderness user. However, the repeated trend of creating large -sometimes 6 ft. tall- towers of rocks is resulting in much damage to our geologic sites and impacting public safety on trails.

I first encountered the destructive practice of rock flipping when I moved here; wildlife collectors routinely find glades in particular to flip rocks and remove snakes, tarantulas, collared lizards. In some glades on publicly owned land, every rock has been flipped which has led to local extirpation of collared lizards and coachwhips. So, that's clearly irresponsible and reckless. Once the seal between rock and soil is broken, habitat is altered, even if the rock is carefully replaced. In the outfit I engage with, this is called disturbing wildlife.

The repeated rock stacking-similar to rock flipping- in highly public and well-traveled places has resulted in injuries as the towers collapse; it has resulted in shattered ancient geologic features; it has morphed into serious vandalism. Have hikers become so far removed from the concepts of Leave No Trace that they feel compelled to "leave a mark?" Is the world not altered enough? Hiking a trail and discovering stacked rocks certainly removes the sense of remoteness and solitude that so many hikers seek in our natural places. While this human value set may not be important to some, it is to many. And that's aside from the destruction of habitat. In some publicly owned land, removing or disturbing rocks, minerals, soil, plants and wildlife violates state statutes. Our state's precious geology should rest where it exists so that future generations can witness the development of geologic time.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

November: Chambourcin Month!

Annually, the always-talented members of the Missouri Wine and Grape Board wisely choose November to celebrate and highlight Missouri's great Thanksgiving wine during the month of November. Chambourcin- light-bodied like a pinot noir, fruity like a Beaujolais Nouveau, pairs well with fall flavors, and a good gateway wine for white wine drinkers who want to venture into reds- is a versatile grape that is fantastic as a varietal, but is also a wonderful blending grape. Many in the Ozark Highlands are aware that Herr Heinrich at Heinrichhaus Winery in St. James is the official King of Chambourcin, but let that not diminish the incredible diversity and quality of so many other Ozark wineries' Chambourcins.

From Baltimore Bend Winery's newsletter, the background on the creation of Chambourcin:

Popular among Missouri winemakers, this versatile grape was developed by French biochemist Joannes Seyve to specifically withstand colder weather and to be more resistant to disease. Seyve often used Seibel hybrids produced in the 1860s, but Chambourcin's exact parentage is unknown. It is thought to be a crossing of native North American vines with a Siebel hybrid.

Unlike Norton and Cynthiana, I don't know about too much research into the origins of this fantastic grape. As a general rule, if I don't purchase a Norton at a winery, I'll normally default to the Chambourcin, a practice that has sometimes resulted in an entire rack of 30 bottles of Chambourcin or Chambourcin-Norton blends and super random bottles of the only palatable wine I could find-- apple, elderberry or otherwise. While Missouri wineries produce among the best examples of Norton in the United States, Illinois vintners are making great Chambourcin--it should serve as their state grape. Indiana wineries excel at Traminette, which is fantastic and so highly variable that it makes for an interesting tasting anytime it's on the menu. Nevertheless, Chambourcin grapes are a little bigger than Norton, a little more versatile than Norton, tastes great aged in steel or oak, and, these traits taken together, make this grape perhaps a little more popular to local winemakers. And it's perfect for the Thanksgiving table when you're tired of the light and fruity Nouveau.

At the time of this writing, November 12, I'm in a race against time to accrue 50,000 points in the Missouri Wine and Grape Board's MVP program, a rewards program that has been extended until next year. I need the 50K points by December 31, 2017 to score tickets to the wine and food extravaganza where winemakers and customers mingle over great examples of Missouri wine. I'm over halfway there, but to finish out the points, I must make targeted trips. I've paid visits to wineries in far-flung reaches of the state only to find out they don't have the rewards tickets--they didn't meet the deadline to receive them or they were just "never sent." Granted, visiting any winery in Missouri on non-busy days is a great time, but in the throes of fall, many are only open on weekends which can sometimes be related to being at a Chuck E. Cheese for sorority girls. Not my vibe. I go to wineries off-the-beaten- path, avoiding festival weekends like Oktoberfests and beer-and-wine extravaganza weekends. The drunken festival crowd is not a desirable setting for me.

And so, yesterday we set out for the Sedalia area wineries, a landscape where the Ozarks meet the prairies. The first stop was Wildlife Ridge Winery, a nice rustic setting with cows and donkeys next door where we enjoyed a bottle of Paintbrush Red, a Chambourcin blend named after the lovely Paintbrush Prairie, a local natural area that erupts in red Indian Paintbrush wildflowers each spring. Three winery dogs (2 old beagles and a Great Pyrenees), friendly staff, supple Missouri dry wines while we shared the tasting room with a catered birthday party for a designated "Princess." Wildlife Ridge also offers a sweet wine called Sweet Pea that made my travel buddy exclaim loudly in surprise of the sample after we had enjoyed so many tastings of dry offerings. A little embarrassed she was when she realized the entire Princess party was drinking it. I don't recommend following the Google maps directions here. Just follow the road signs from Hwy. 50. We ended up seeing entire 20mph neighborhoods when we could have just taken Hwy. 65 to Hwy. 50. This is a fantastic winery that serves cheese, sausage and crackers as snacks. The wine, the winery dogs and nice staff definitely make Wildlife Ridge Winery a destination.

Just a short drive away is the charming German town of Cole Camp, my first introduction to cute German communities in Missouri. Lovely architecture, their own little town fair with jam judging and quilt shows, an Amish bakery restaurant and a winery! Eichenberg Winery is located in the heart of Cole Camp and serves wine to please a variety of palates. Their winery is decked out now in holiday flair, including dark red Christmas lights in the bathroom. They can't serve wine by the glass because they don't have a food serving license. I've bought fresh bottles of their Chambourcin before and was pleased, but yesterday I picked up an apple wine to serve when my dad visits for Thanksgiving. I'm thinking of it as a brunch wine to serve with a cheese plate and maybe a poached egg on toast with avocado. The setting at Eichenberg Winery is always charming, but they may keep their tasting bar wines open for too long before tossing them. With limited hours, they probably can't go through entire bottles in the proper timeframe. I do love Cole Camp, especially the town's proximity to all of the great prairie preserves in the local area.

Thanks to the folks at Wildlife Ridge Winery, we learned of a winery that was not on Google and not on the Missouri winery map! Dale Hollow Winery opened in 2017. Located in the heart of Stover, which was once the mailing address to the wonderful Grey Bear Winery, now closed, this new winery is making outstanding dry red wine. I must add Dale Hollow Winery to the Missouri list of Norton wine producers and need to send a bottle to the secretary, the keeper of records of the Norton Wine Society. Their Norton was fabulous, nice tannins, good legs in the glass and certainly able to be aged a while in the bottle. I wasn't expecting this winery on the route so it's a great surprise and I'll definitely be back there when they're not just about to close.

In one day I was able to accrue 1600 rewards points, what with the first stop at Les Bourgeois Winery's tasting room for my 100 point ticket. I must be targeted in my approach to areas to visit as many more wineries to make it to 50K by December 31. There are so many new wineries opening in Missouri with so many great wines to taste, it's hard to stomach that I can't retire for 20 years and just spend my time traipsing through this great state collecting Nortons and Chambourcins.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Fall Float on the Courtois

Aluminum canoes are unforgiving on floats in shallow, gravel-choked streams. With the recent dry weather, the Courtois was barely floatable, which meant that every low water situation either resulted in bailing out of the canoe to drag it to deeper water or forcing through the shallows by digging paddles into gravel and scooting along. With six canoes in our group, the deep gravel and shallow water oftentimes did not allow for a peaceful fall float experience. But the water was clear, temperatures topped out at 69 degrees, and it was a beautiful day to be on the stream.

With recent changes to my schedule, I've found myself recently exploring the Dissected Till Plains region of North Missouri in between my regular forays into the Ozarks. Admittedly, I haven't spent too much time in the Meramec River Hills region around the Huzzah and Courtois, so taking a float and a short hike along the Ozark Trail in that area was certainly rewarding. Steep dry cliffs reminiscent of the Jack's Fork River line sections of the stream, and the area is rich with other karst features located (I think) in the Gasconade Formation. The woodlands surrounding the stream have not been managed with fire in many decades and therefore possess few traces of woodland flora--a spreading aster here and a stiff-leaved aster there, mostly restricted to the trail corridor where light can reach the woodland floor.

Due to the lack of fire, closed canopy, and the deep loessal soils prevalent in the area, the woodlands have taken on a forested condition: a massive Schumard oak perched high on a ridgetop stands sentry, a tree normally restricted to low lying, deep, true forest where fire doesn't travel. Historically, there was very little true forest, mostly restricted to steep ravines, sinkholes, areas existing in a fire shadow, but likely not on a high and dry ridgetop. The mesification of thousands of acres of our historic woodlands is largely due to the interruption of a fire regime following the era of significant logging operations and open range grazing. This is the condition that represents much of the Ozarks today. Historic records indicate a much more open landscape with prairie grasses and forbs, a fire-mediated system that may have been lost altogether. Similar landscapes in the Meramec River Hills that have witnessed a 30 year prescribed fire program are testament of what this landscape once looked like. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and other early explorers wouldn't recognize the area if they visited today.

Regardless, a hike and a float on a nice fall day are always welcome activities as the days march towards darkness.

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?