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.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

A Little off the Beaten Path: Red Moose Vineyards

A few nights ago, while in my hotel room listening to the cicada and katydid chorus through my screen window, I flipped through the hotel's complimentary magazine that highlights local businesses. Naturally, if I see the words "vineyard" or "winery," I will investigate the advertisement and take note. New wineries are opening annually in Missouri, and this one, Red Moose Vineyards, located about 30 miles outside of Salem, has been around for a few years now and operating under my winery-seeking radar. Well, under the radar until now.

Follow the curvy road of Hwy. 19, the same road that takes one to Akers Ferry Canoe Rental and into the heart of the Current River Hills, then peel off onto VV- not VV in Dent County but Crawford County. On the right, just a few miles down VV and on a short gravel driveway, sits a lovely new metal building with log cabin accents and large two story deck complete with brightly colored umbrellas over the tables to provide shade. The deck overlooks the vineyard which was planted in 2006 with Norton, Chambourcin and other varietals that make up my favorite Missouri wines. Inside the log cabin accents with a contemporary feel is a modern tasting room with high ceilings and huge windows that allow for ideal natural light. Red Moose Vineyards was not named after the animal, but the partners- the winemaker's nickname Red, and Moose is Red's brother and both he and his wife (their sister-in-law) collaborate in the business. Moose's real name is Mark and their sister-in-law's name is Shirley, but she goes by the nickname Zimm. This business is a true family venture.

The rustic -yet modern- feel of the winery includes a mounted moose head above the door and a silhouette red moose as the logo. So, even though the winery was not named after the animal, it would have been strange to not have a red moose as the logo. I recall a winery in North Missouri named after the owner's son, but the entire winery was outfitted in "I Love Lucy" paraphernalia (which made me check the record to find out if Lucille Ball was a Missourian. She was not).

Red Moose Vineyards offers light lunch options such as pizza and cheese trays, winery food always welcome to winery guests (especially my trusty driver). More importantly for me at a Missouri winery is the wide variety of supple, beautifully made dry red wines. The Red Moose 2012 Norton is a classic, aged 14 months in white oak barrels procured from McGinnis Wood Products in nearby Cuba, Missouri. The 2015 Chambourcin is fantastic, and while it's a drink-now wine, it could also be set aside for a few years to see how it develops. The precious barista that day was the winemaker's wife and partner who had time to tell me about the winery's history: They moved here from Edwardsville, Illinois where she worked for the local fire department. Her husband was a home winemaker in the beginning. On the tasting bar was a photo of the label of Fruition, a red blend that they sell, with part of the proceeds of the sales of this wine earmarked for a local Salem Plateau- area fire department. Each month the sales of this wine, Wine with a Cause, goes to a local charity of Red Moose Vineyard's choice. Of course I bought this one for my rack, knowing that part of my purchase that day was going to the local volunteer fire department.

As is the case with most Missouri wineries, the biggest sales here come from the sweeter offerings. I tasted the semi-sweet wines, which were lovely but probably too dry for my one friend who drinks sweet wines. They excel at dry vintages, and are among the friendliest bunch of folks I've met in a long time. This little winery off Hwy. 19 has something to offer everyone, including beer drinkers who can enjoy Rolla/St. James Public House's fine craft beer. I'm thrilled Red Moose Vineyard is successful, and so happy to have met the winemaker who helped me with my yeast choices for my first batch of Norton. What a great place to spend an afternoon overlooking incredible vines and the welcome thunderstorms rolling in.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

A New Landscape Paradigm

In the past ten years that I have lived in my yellow Craftsman bungalow, I have dealt with the local weed inspectors regarding my native, wild yard. I have a lot of asters, goldenrods, wild geraniums, spiderwort, cup plant and other native species; seeing these rangy plants when they're not in full glorious bloom seems to ruffle feathers in the code violations offices. Fair enough, I understand height restrictions for plants that are not typical garden variety species. I certainly understand where the weed inspectors are coming from, a background of lawns being tidy and nice, manicured, which my yard is not. I worked in horticulture in a past career, so certainly recognize the concept of well-manicured yards to keep snakes and rats at bay. I also recognize that native plant gardening doesn't result in pest problems.

When I first moved into this house as a renter, I took note of the native flora that was persisting through the frequent plantings of turfgrass. In this perched wetland classified as an upland flatwoods, we had old growth chinquapin oak, pin oaks with buttressing bases, lots of smartweeds, joe pye weed, spiderwort, and all of these species came in on their own, so I was in no position to eradicate them in favor of a turfgrass lawn. I've never owned a lawn mower and never wanted to invest in one. We've had our battles with the weed inspector but it's mostly because the lot next to mine is abandoned and has chest-high fescue and Queen Anne's lace. I actively work to make my yard less weedy and more forb-y. The hostas that the previous landowner planted never do very well; they flower for a few days and then shrivel in the crappy soils inherent in this property. The purple coneflowers do quite well, along with black-eyed Susans which bloom profusely throughout June and August. But I still have the tall asters that won't flower until early September. And then there's my Helianthus hirsutus which doesn't really flower until late September.

Tuesday afternoon I will have a cadre of "backyard habitat specialists" on my property for an assessment. I have gone through the paperwork for a National Wildlife Backyard Habitat certification, and the local version of that which asks even further questions about rain barrels and compost piles, which, of course I have. I have shared photos of other native vegetation yards in the neighborhood to the office that will be coming out to my yard, all beautiful photos of Ratibida and coneflowers, charismatic sedges, nice and organized yards. I've worked hard this week to make my yard look organized, cutting back seedheads of sedges knowing that the weed ordinance hits yards with "weeds" 1 ft. tall, which my Carex annectans is. Cut it. I did. I've trimmed back my gooseberry shrubs, my wild hydrangeas, my elderberry, all very tidy and manicured now. I do hope I pass inspection and the muster that will allow me to weigh in on native plantings. Fingers crossed.

Update!Met with the City Conservationist today and my yard ranked Platinum because there is no trace of bush honeysuckle, lawn grass, wintercreeper and other weeds. I scored well with my rain barrel, bird baths, bird houses, bird feeders, bee house, brushpile, native fruit producing flora (she had some of my gooseberries which the catbirds left behind), so I get a sign in the yard as a native habitat landscape! Now I will have the city sign, my National Wildlife Federation sign, and my Bernie sign. She told me I needed to keep up the Bernie sign, which has been up since early 2016. It's not coming down.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Oh Deer, We Have a Serious Problem

Visiting the Cross Timbers country, where the Ozarks meet the prairies, is usually full of fun botanical discoveries--Perideridia americana, Malvaviscus hispidus, fun stuff like that, all surrounded by stunted post oak trees that average 400 years in age. This traditionally open landscape was the site of early ecosystem restoration projects spearheaded by a colleague, followed up by botanical surveys which indicated super rich woodlands, old growth post oaks, a grass-forb mix that appeared after thinning and prescribed fire were implemented. I love camping here with all of the Summer Tanagers, the Orchard Orioles, the Red-headed Woodpeckers that all thrive in this great environment.

But when I looked at the sampling data from 1987 and compared it to my own transect data along the same plots I collected in 2011, it was not even recognizable. First I thought I was in the wrong area, but I quickly realized that the entire site had been so severely degraded by deer overbrowsing that I asked for funding to install deer exclosures just to make sure I wasn't crazy. 16 ft. cattle panels, held together with baling wire, requiring climbing into them to sample the vegetation. So, I set up deer exclosures in 2011. I have sampled outside the deer exclosure and inside the deer exclosure using valid methodology established by the outfit I work for every year after a prescribed fire. The first few years I saw a few differences, more flowering stems inside the exclosure, more development of redbuds, white oaks and other ice cream plants for deer. I have collected data since 2011 and the data from 2017, collected last week, tells a story. A horrible story.

Imagine a landscape that was on par with the best remaining quality landscapes in the Niangua Basin, super rich with edge-of-range species, a lot of Camassia angusta, Brickellia, all kinds of cool plants that pollinating insects depend on, and then add an atrociously high number of white-tailed deer, some so tame and tick-infested that they come up to campers looking for food. Biodiversity disappears. I have witnessed this trend around St. Louis, and thankfully we have long-standing deer exclosures set up there, too, to measure deer impacts to vegetation. Unfortunately, someone in my shoes complaining about deer overpopulation and the degradation of biodiversity at the hands of deer doesn't stand a chance in the political realm. So I collect data. I write testimony that deer are impacting biodiversity.

When the woodlands of the Cross Timbers country were once a rich system with a suite of warm season grasses and perennial forbs- many of them restricted in their range- when that landscape is reduced to a monoculture of inland sea oats, genus Uniola, with no forb diversity, there's a problem. There's especially a problem when in those deer exclosures I set up in 2011 possess more species richness than anywhere else in the entire 800 acre tract, there's a problem. Indeed, deer cause a lot of collateral damage to crops, to automobiles, but no one is measuring the impacts of deer on biodiversity except a few select folks. When I saw a doe in my yard recently I recoiled and yelled and screamed and almost pulled out my Daisy slingshot. My partner laughed, saying that I trash talk deer so much that now they're coming after my yard. It's not funny. Deer are voracious feeders and will denude a landscape of quality vegetation, and when that happens, the whole trophic cascade effect occurs. Without the flowering plants you don't see pollinators. Without pollinators and other insects you don't see birds. Without birds you don't see seed dispersal, and so forth. Deer are the hooved locusts of biodiversity. Managing this scourge from the east, from the abysmal landscapes of Biltmore Estates, no plants but trees (not regenerating) and ferns, will be our future unless we take immediate action to control these out of control deer populations. Without the long standing predator-prey relationships, deer will continue to spiral out of control. And biodiversity loses every time.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

June is Concord Month!

As any loyal reader of my blog knows, I do not drink sweet wine. I opt for Norton, Chambourcin, cheap Cabernet for my house wine. I do collect Oregon pinot noir and Missouri Nortons and will open one on special occasions, including one occasion which involved the coming of my house wrens to my wren box. These are special occasions. When the katydids start calling I'll open another one. I have great hopes of making my own wine, not for apocalypse planning but for my own edification. So I had to start somewhere. Missouri seems like a great place for making wine.

And so, last July I placed an order for Norton juice from a St. James area vineyard that cannot produce wine. They grow grapes and can sell juice, but can't make wine. When I finally arrived in mid-September, they only had Concord juice, sold as juice, frozen to kill off the wild yeast. I reconfigured my recipe with champagne yeast to make Concord wine, preferably a dry wine that didn't taste like all the commercial Concords that are palatable to college-aged girls and sweet wine lovers.

A family friend gave me two glass carboys, my partner gave me the fermenters and airlocks, along with a great book on making wine. Special thanks to professional winemakers who gave me more advice than I even understood, I made my first batch of wine: Concord, with regular wine yeast and champagne yeast as a finish. The wine turned out vaguely effervescent, but flavorful. I have given it away to friends who drink sweet wine and have given tastes to friends who support my plan to make supple, dry wines out of Missouri-grown grapes. But June is designated as Concord Month by the Missouri Wine and Grape Board, so I celebrate my first venture into making wine. I have yet to actually drink anything more than a taste of the wine I made. I plan to improve my skills with better juice secured from a winery in Osage County. In the meantime, visit Missouri wineries this summer! Concord is a good place to start. Usually folks will drink sweet wine and then matriculate to dry wines. Concord is traditionally so damned sweet but it's a good gateway wine for anyone wanting to go from beer or liquor to wine.