Saturday, April 30, 2016

After the Rain

Spring has been rather clement with occasional rainy days and plenty of sunshine. Vegetation in a lot of places looks as though there have been steroids injected into the rain, tall huge and rangy plant life with abundant flowers. I took advantage of a sunny afternoon to take a long hike to see the last of the dogwoods, to hear some of the first of the gray treefrogs calling from the woodland canopy, and to enjoy a nice spring day in nice woods.

Dogwood flowers have all fallen off the understory shrubs in recent days and full- on tree cover is in play now, shutting out light for spring ephemeral wildflowers. But we had a nice spring wildflower season with reports coming from all over the state that this was a particularly good year for Celandine Poppy and Bluebells in a true forest on the Missouri River. Migrating warblers are all in town and waking me up at 5am since I sleep with my windows open. Upon hearing a bird call I don't recognize as a yard resident, I bolt out of bed, grab coffee, and go searching. I've had Tennessee and Nashville warblers in my yard this month and I heard a Veery a couple of mornings ago. If you're not familiar with this haunting bird call, visit any of the websites that play bird calls upon demand. It's downright eerie with circuits of threes, sort of like a Duke Ellington tune.

Meanwhile, May is upon us and it's a busy month with conferences, meetings, and presentations. Tick season is here in earnest, much earlier than it was ten years ago; I recall not having my first ticks until late May, but this year I started attracting them in late February. All of those millions of seed ticks that hatched last July are now little subadults that latch on and creep all over in the hundreds. Thank heavens for hotels with pools with exceedingly high chlorine levels to kill them outright. Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Castile Soap works wonders on ticks, as well.

I had a nice hike through decent little woods that, in localized areas, have seen certain periods of heavy grazing and are still in recovery mode. But the woods are coming back, slowly, maybe through another two hundred years, but there's species accrual and structural building, and it's a long way from being a super nice woodland. On the upside, there's no bush honeysuckle, which is more than I can write about thousands of acres in Missouri. The heart of the Ozarks, protected by acres of buffering private lands that are not urbanized with bush honeysuckle, are not under the siege of this closed canopy-loving exotic species. But biotic homogenization is occurring at a rapid pace, so we must be vigilant, keep up with the fire, treat exotic infestations before they spread. Resiliency in the landscape is key. Make the landscape as healthy as possible with prescribed fire, no disturbance from heavy equipment or ATVs, keep the hogs out, keep deer numbers low, allow the ground flora to thrive and flourish.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Back to the Steyermark Site

Everyone in the office knows the routine: when Missouri's morel season is two weeks underway, so too is the bloom cycle of Amethyst Shooting Star (Dodecatheon amethystinum), known from only a handful of locations in the Ozarks. This glacial relict plant resembles the more common shooting star (Dodecatheon meadii) found on both glades and rock faces, but there are distinct genetic differences between the two. The location of the rare Amethyst Shooting Star was noted by Julian Steyermark in his discussion of the species in his landmark 1963 Flora of Missouri. Unfortunately, the homogenization of this site through the conversion of the woodlands to a monoculture of bush honeysuckle makes the shooting star location highly vulnerable. So, since 2008, every April we dedicate several days to pulling and cutting and stump treating bush honeysuckle around this moist cliff face. Unfortunately, the rest of the woods are doomed.

This is not the job for one person. The Steyermark site of the rare shooting star covers about ten square meters with hundreds of basal rosettes of this plant poking through thick moss and surrounded by other small spring wildflowers. The entire shrub layer in the photo to the right is bush honeysuckle. If we stopped making our annual trek to the shooting star location, these plants would vanish. Bush honeysuckle not only blocks light to the woodland floor, thereby blocking any hope of flora growing, but it's also allelopathic which means it poisons everything around it. Once the canopy trees die, there will not be regeneration in bush honeysuckle-filled woods. And sadly, one plant can produce thousands of seeds, manifest in those pretty shiny berries each fall.

At a recent conference, attendees from Montana asked our presenter on non-native invasive species if Missouri had any native flora left, considering how many species of exotics have taken a foothold in recent years. Of course, we do still have native flora, but fire-starved woodlands (thousands of acres in the Ozarks) with their closed canopy has not met an exotic species as detrimental to biodiversity as bush honeysuckle. Japanese stiltgrass is running a close second, but it has not been documented from every county like bush honeysuckle has in recent years. Exotics that can thrive in closed canopy conditions are certainly a bigger threat than roadside exotics.

After our day of honeysuckle removal, the area we worked in was free of honeysuckle. The cliff face is obviously very steep, so pulling plants required a lot of holding onto trees so we didn't fall into the river valley below. There are still hundreds of shooting star plants, not all in bloom that day, but hundreds of rosettes. The increasing urbanization and the lack of regularly occurring prescribed fire have left us with a new plant association: bush honeysuckle, deer, wintercreeper association. Sadly, this is what homogenization looks like and to protect landscapes from the ever-burgeoning threat of this detrimental process, it takes a lot of work. In the long run, bush honeysuckle will win.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Loved to Death

In March 2003, I began my tenure as a seasonal worker in an incredible tract of woodlands in the Ozarks. I finally had a chance to see wildflowers that I had learned from field guides of spring flora in Louisiana but in the flesh, since most of the spring flora in Louisiana had been extirpated from years of fire suppression or utter destruction of natural communities, they were listed as "rare or declining." I really loved seeing Dutchman's breeches and wild geranium for the first time, and certainly loved seeing that they were considered "common spring wildflowers" in the Ozark Highlands. So I really relished my work site and wanted to make sure that everyone else could experience that same excitement of seeing an incredible spring wildflower display.

Years pass, visitation to my favorite place increases, publicity highlighting how great this place is increases, and my favorite place starts to see visitation reaching one million, not just a few thousand visitors a year, but close to one million people wanting to see all of these great features. Approximately one million people hike the little footpath wanting to see the wildflower display, the geologic formations, the little footpath that also affords a good little hike for health purposes, despite the natural history one may encounter, it's a hike! The little footpath becomes a large trail, a wide trail from all of the trampling of vegetation. The little trail is now a main path that sees over 500 visitors a day, so all of the vegetation that existed along the edges of the small footpath is now gone, the ground totally compacted and eroded.

Let's fast forward another five years and more publicity for this site: Best site for spring wildflowers! Best site for hiking! Best site for a natural setting! Best day trip from multiple urban areas! Best area to see a microcosm of the Ozarks! Ach. So, more publicity, more traffic to this precious site that is so fragile because it represents the highest quality landscape in the region, but it has hiking trails, and picnic tables, and day use! More visitation, more widening of the trail. With increased visitation, hikers decide to go off trail, to trample native vegetation to see rock formations. The few hikers that go off trail then create rogue trails that everyone else follows, which means that these illegal trails to no real destination end up as eroded areas of no vegetation. All of the spring flora that once existed here has been destroyed by visitors going off the trail.

The image to the right represents an illegal trail. Note the erosion around the roots of the tree, note the lack of vegetation. This area on a slope did not look like this several years ago. Illegal trail use and trampling has damaged this area, and it will take many years to recover.

When a populace learns of special natural places, how does one protect these areas from being loved to death? Will it take boardwalk installation everywhere before the publication of an article in a St. Louis newspaper? One person going off trail and trampling vegetation will invite others to do the same. Fragile spring wildflowers do not recover, they don't just "bounce back" from repeated trampling. In areas that are loved by millions of people, please stay on designated trails. The features for which the area was protected, the reasons for which the area was designated as a significant site, will suffer with illegal, rogue and social trails. Sadly, this site that I fell in love with in 2003 is being loved to death. Everyone wants to explore, to hike over every inch, and to see the area in all its biodiverse beauty. Unfortunately, that love will kill the resource in the end.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Spring in Wilderness

Stepping onto the narrow footpath on a cold, cloudy morning last week, I had great hopes the sun would break through during my hike. I spent the day in a designated wilderness, a large area of land set aside for its inherent wilderness qualities. This area possesses naturalness, shaped primarily by the forces of nature, not man. It is undeveloped and of a primeval character, and untrammeled. I went there because it also provides for another wilderness characteristic- solitude and unconfined, primitive recreation opportunities. Sadly, with the area located not too far from a thriving urban area full of fellow seekers of the natural world, the weekends here are usually incredibly crowded...thus knocking down the solitude feature. But that day last week, I only encountered two other people on an 8 mile hike. So that wasn't bad.

I followed the trail to judge the quality of it, this multi-use hiking and equestrian trail. There were honestly only a few localized areas where the trail showed notable degradation; throughout the 8 miles, the trail was a nice little narrow footpath. Several waterways course through the area, requiring hopscotching on rocks or during high water events soaking your trousers up to the knee. The Louisiana waterthrush have returned to the streambanks, bobbing their little tails and sounding off with the most dulcet of birdsongs. Bird life was alive that afternoon when the sun finally appeared, warming the area enough for me to ditch my jacket. Red-headed woodpeckers dominated, chuckling as they moved through the oak woodland.

Spring wildflower season is certainly here in earnest. Dutchman's breeches must be the most common of all in this wilderness, not restricted to moist bottomlands but all over the woodlands. I visited the area for a rapid assessment of the wilderness character and the open woodlands, sweeping vistas, and natural setting certainly fit the bill. Unfortunately, and now all too common throughout the Ozarks near urban areas, it wasn't only native spring wildflowers and shadbush that have woken up from a long winter. Bush honeysuckle peppered the landscape and in abandoned homesteads, multiflora rose existed in impenetrable thickets. Granted, I'm less concerned about the abandoned homesteads and more concerned about the future of the naturalness in the area. Exotic species like bush honeysuckle thrive in closed canopy conditions like this one. As an unofficial part of the Honeysuckle Eradication Project spearheaded in my town, I pulled probably 30 or 40 plants just on the hike. Indeed, the bush honeysuckle issue degrades the wilderness character. On a positive note, it's still in the manageable stage for now, unlike a lot of similar areas near urban settings.

It was pleasing to spend the day here and not see major threats to the wilderness, despite development encroachment near the area's borders. At the crest of every hillside, the sweeping vistas, the viewshed, remained wild. But the bush honeysuckle is rabbit in the headlights of a steamroller moving at 90 mph. If the issue is not addressed soon, immediately, actually, we'll lose the very naturalness and primeval state for which this area was protected.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Of Pine Warblers and Phoebes

Deep in a protected forested cove of old growth bur oaks, spring ephemerals are well advanced for mid-March. I missed seeing the trout lilies in bloom here, with only the mottled leaves left carpeting the forest floor. Spring beauty, rue anemone and even a couple of bluebells were in bloom this week in the Ozarks. It may be a record for early blooming exotic species such as Bradford pear, which stick out along fencerows and in yards. I have not yet seen shadbush flowering, and most other natives are still waiting for reliably warm weather to bloom. The wisdom of the natives.

The pine warblers and Eastern phoebes returned to Missouri in recent weeks, their calls some of the signature sounds of spring. Birds are triggered to migrate by day length, which means they normally show up when there is abundant food available to rear their young. The warm weather may be pushing up spring flora, but the oaks, which provide a significant source of food by way of insect life for breeding birds, are still dormant, allowing for the spring annuals to have ample light for their life cycles. The ancient rites of spring events including bloom period and bud break may be early for some species, but hopefully not everything. The timberdoodles have been around for several weeks now and in great abundance in certain parts of the Ozarks. Lizards and snakes are starting to come out to take advantage of the warm weather. But as I write, an inch of snow rests on the ground in Jefferson City while all the Bradford pears are in full bloom.

When we think of breeding birds, timing really is everything. There have been several studies investigating nest success as it pertains to the effects of climate change and earlier spring. Considering that much of the biomass consumed by baby birds comes in the form of caterpillars, and many of them loyal to oaks, the earlier warmer spring weather is triggering the earlier maturation of caterpillars. By the time the birds arrive for nesting, many caterpillars are already moths, not the same nutritious and available food as they were in caterpillar stage. Spring birders of talk about "warbler neck," a condition one develops after long hours of looking towards towering canopies for the warblers gleaning insects from the buds of trees. With migratory songbirds declining across their range, potentially from a number of factors including climate change and the disruption of natural cycles, we may have to start looking harder for those signature signs of spring like the colorful warblers passing through on their way to Canada.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Harbingers of spring

Last week, just before trout season opened on March 1, I set out for bottomland woodlands along the Niangua River to look for Harbinger of Spring, Salt and Pepper, one of the first spring wildflowers to bloom in the Ozarks. My radar was on the ground. Beep, Beep, Beep went the radar upon seeing vegetative stems of Erigenia bulbosa and finally, after about ten minutes, the radar went crazy with a whirr-whirr-whirr upon finding a flowering stem! Fires were going on all over the place with big plumes and diffuse smoke all around the river valley. But in the sycamore-dominated bottomlands, areas that don't see fire traditionally, the Harbingers of Spring were starting to pop up through the desiccated stalks of stinging nettle from last summer.

The day on the Niangua River was pleasant enough weather-wise, just ideal, actually, but seeing the degraded water quality certainly put a damper on the afternoon. In recent years, development in the watershed has taken off by leaps and bounds with new float outfitters, campgrounds, cabins, and other structures with poor wastewater treatment solutions. The catastrophic December flood event in the area has naturally resulted in high nutrient loading in the stream, all of those crummy, leaking septic tanks, the latrines, the flush toilets and cabins in the 50 year floodplain all dumping directly into the river. The cyanobacteria and other pollutants have caused a massive bloom of disgusting algae that is now coating every single rock and crevice in the upper Niangua River. Poor sculpin tried to navigate the rocks looking for interstitial spaces, which were nowhere to be had. The river is vile, and I'm beginning to wonder what the rest of our streams look like after that devastating event in December.

Will the warm weather and regular flow eventually flush out all of this disgusting algae or is this the present condition of the river for a long time? I shudder to think of what the Meramec River looks like this spring, what with entire homes and shelters floating downstream, cattle in the watershed like the Niangua, but even moreso. I saw Erigenia in bloom and a lot of fire in the uplands. Spring must be around the corner.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

The New Cigarette Butts

Last summer, I traveled to Jackson Hole to visit my sister. On a walk around Jenny Lake in the Grand Tetons National Park, a scenic and short little walk, I noticed two plastic flossers in the middle of the gravel path. My sister and I talked about how we see them everywhere--parking lots, in the grass in parks, in the snow--everywhere. Beginning with that conversation, my sister began sending me close-up photos of flossers she encountered with a note of where they were found; she includes no other information, just a text with a photo and location. I began to reciprocate in August 2015, sending her images of flossers I found in Missouri.

Since July 2015, we have amassed a catalog of 207 photos of discarded flossers between us; it should be noted that these are the flossers that we have seen when we have our phones with us, which means we have seen many more but they have not been documented. For example, on my walk to the gym there is a sage green flosser at the end of my street, but I never have my phone with me when I walk down there, so it remains undocumented. The plastic flossers have become as ubiquitous as cigarette butts were for many years. My town has outlawed smoking in buildings and public spaces, so I don't see nearly as many cigarette butts, just flossers.

Of course, dental hygiene is very important and flossing is a key factor in maintaining healthy gums. However, having spoken with someone who has used these plastic flossers, it has been reported that they are not as effective as two index fingers and a piece of waxed dental floss, which is my preferred method of flossing. The amount of plastic in our environment remains at high levels, causing pollution and impacts to wildlife, especially when the plastic ends up in our streams and rivers, which is where the flossers in the street eventually end up.

Since the documentation of flossers in the environment began, my sister and I have noted two developments: the introduction of different colored flossers, and dual purpose flossers. First, all flossers were white with blunt handles. Around December, my sister sent me a photo of a sage green flosser found at Snow King, a ski destination in her hometown. I began seeing sage green and blue flossers in Missouri about a month later. Was this development in color to represent "eco-friendly disposable flossing," and are the color flossers more expensive? Out of the blue, she sent me a photo of a sage green flosser with a sharp end!

Because most of the flossers are found in parking lots, I attributed the sharp end to broken plastic. By January, every flosser we documented had a sharp end, which made me draw a conclusion that the one-time-use flossers now came with a toothpick at the end, as seen here in classic white in the parking lot of a local state park.

I mentioned this recent phenomenon to my dental hygienist who certainly encourages flossing, but was saddened to hear that flossing is now ending with disgusting pieces of plastic discarded in the environment. "I guess it's better than cigarettes, right?" she asked during my last teeth cleaning.

My sister has sent me some really gross ones, like this one on the ski slopes with pieces of carrot and maybe a little blood on it. Her comment was "even the ravens think this is gross." Postprandial flossing remains a wonderful habit, certainly better than smoking cigarettes, but the disposable flossers, even the green ones, are not environmentally friendly.