Saturday, February 06, 2016

Happy Samedi Gras!

I distinctly remember the November afternoon when the residents from the City of New Orleans were allowed back into town after Katrina. We snaked through the piles of debris and broken limbs that accumulated during the initial flush of house cleaning. I was there to clean out my apartment which had been damaged from the storm, the apartment with serious, headache-inducing mold and a 200 year old floor buckled from water damage from the roof collapsing in August. Katrina had blown the slate tiles off the roof and water settled on the roof during the storm, causing it to collapse onto my bed. Throwing destroyed personal items out the top window proved to be a little cathartic and painful simultaneously. I carefully organized salvageable items with labels (size 6 dresses, kitchen wares, etc.), but the piles were pilfered and dismantled within an hour.

It took several days to clean out the apartment, so we pitched a tent in the backyard while waiting for the State Farm adjusters who, ironically, were from the Columbia, Missouri office I now visit. We learned that first afternoon that our rental property manager was planning to refurbish the old historic bakery apartment building and increase rent by 350%. So, we moved everything to a storage unit that subsequently filled with Katrina mold and waited to find my first job in Missouri in late December.

In one of the last closets I cleaned out, I found all of my years of accumulated Mardi Gras beads, cups, and doubloons. I had organized the plain beads by color in some earlier iteration of a general sense of tidiness I now lack. All of the "special" beads, the ones with plastic or metal medallions representing the krewes, were all in one big bag. While Doug was doing something useful in our destroyed apartment, I sorted through Mardi Gras beads. I thought I may return to the city to live, but even ten years later the poverty, income inequality, and gentrification alongside chronic societal issues make the town undesirable to me and Doug. I still visit my friends there, but compared to where I live now, the dysfunction of New Orleans is too much to handle.

So I saved my fancy Mardi Gras beads, left several nice big bags of them on the street (someone hit a jackpot) but I had no idea where I had stored them in my 675 ft.2 cottage in 2007. I found a small bag of beads last year--some Orpheus beads, a few Rex beads, my red beans and rice bead. Today, while pilfering my basement for basic household items to donate to a friend's new house, I found my fancy beads! And just in time for tonight's Winemaker's Mardi Gras Ball at Les Bourgeois, a five course Creole-inspired meal with wine pairings and live music. It's a formal ball, so I'll wear my real pearls, but also a 2004 Zulu Mr. Big Shot medallion bead, a Bacchus bead (of course), and Endymion and Tucks beads, two fun parades that roll today.

Catch the parades live from Fat Harry's, a little Uptown frat bar on St. Charles Ave. Go here for live streaming. If you miss a parade today, tune in through Tuesday when all the parades are being live streamed. You can also visit the local radio station, WWOZ, for streaming live New Orleans music 24 hours.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Month of Fire and Norton

As January comes to a close, the days are growing longer and the much brighter light streams into my windows each morning through the bare branches of my black oak, casting wintry shadows on my bedroom wall. Like clockwork, with longer daylengths and drying days, fire weather has dramatically improved in the past few weeks bringing in earnest prescribed fire events across the Ozark Highlands. Fire behavior in January isn't always as polite as it has been this month, and by late February I'll be thinking about the niceties of late January fires: predictable, excellent smoke lift, effective, and without a roar.

The Missouri Wine and Grape Board designated January as Norton Month to celebrate the state's signature bold red wine. Granted, every month is Norton month in my book, what with Norton being my favorite Missouri wine. The Norton Wine Travelers shared a link on what seems to be a different take on the genetic background of the Norton grape; the article reports that the cross may have been with Vitis cinerea, another local grapevine, rather than V. aestivalis. Intriguing. Read the article here.

I didn't collect nearly as many Nortons in January as I had intended to, but the long President's Day weekend plans include a trip to the St. James wine region to remedy this situation. I look forward to trying the 2013 vintages and talking to winemakers about their wine in barrels from the past wet 2015 growing season. Writing on a 55 degree morning and no interest in watching Djokovic beat Murray in the Australian Open Men's Final, perhaps today will also include a visit to a winery to celebrate Norton Month!

Sunday, January 17, 2016

How Birds Stay Warm in Winter

The National Wildlife Federation's newsletter this morning included a nice article on birds in winter and how these charming little animals stay warm. My feeders are full, the snow continues to fall, and I've refilled the bird bath with warm water twice this morning. From the desk of Melissa Mayntz, NWF:

"As temperatures drop across much of the country, we don heavy jackets, hats and gloves to keep warm. But what about backyard birds? Like humans, birds are warm-blooded, yet they have higher metabolic rates and, therefore, higher body temperatures—105 degrees F on average. When the mercury dips, it can be tough to maintain that heat. Survival depends on both physical and behavioral adaptations.

Birds’ feathers provide remarkable insulation, and many species grow an extra layer of down as part of a late-fall molt. Feathers are aligned to create tiny air pockets, and their outer layer is coated with waterproofing oil produced by a gland at the tail’s base and distributed when a bird preens.

The key is layers of trapped air contained between overlapping feathers that, when warmed by body heat, act as a cocoon of warmth,” says biologist Gavin Bieber of Wings Birding Tours Worldwide. “Think how a cushy down jacket with an outer waterproofing layer works for us.” As for featherless legs and feet, they’re covered with scales that minimize heat loss.

When fall food is plentiful, birds gorge to build up insulating fat, which also provides fuel to conserve body heat. Some species switch to higher-fat diets in winter. On sunny days, birds take advantage of solar radiation, turning their backs to the sun to allow their largest surface areas to soak up the rays. Under clouds, they may shiver, which burns calories but increases body temperature.

Roosting is another behavioral adaptation. “Small flocking birds such as bushtits, chickadees, nuthatches and titmice manage cold northern winters by roosting in groups in tight cavities,” Bieber says.

The most extreme survival strategy is torpor: a state of lower metabolism and body temperature that conserves energy. Hummingbirds regularly undergo torpor while swifts, doves and chickadees do so in extreme conditions. The common poorwill can enter a torpor so deep it effectively hibernates—the only bird species known to hibernate through winter. Compared with that, our coats and hats may seem like primitive adaptations indeed."

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Arrival of Winter, in earnest

The Missouri Wine and Grape Board designates January as Norton Month,which is a certainly appropriate designation with the temperatures dropping to normal winter weather lows, snow, winds out of the Northwest, and the short days that encourage thick and inky wines like a good Missouri Norton. While, yes, every day is Norton day in my house, the Wine and Grape Board just gave me an extra nudge to walk down to my basement for some random old Norton that I've been hoarding for several years. My basement houses more than the washer, dryer, and my entire Classics library; it holds all the Oregon pinot noir, all the fancy Nortons and nice, drink-soon Chambourcins, and all those other wines that I don't want housesitters to think are open game for consumption while I'm away. If I left fancy wine in the upstairs racks, they would be quickly consumed by petsitters or houseguests without my approval. It's happened before. So, January is Norton month and I plan to use that to my advantage as justification for increasing my Norton holdings.

The North winds came in quickly last week as I was checking out flood damage from the 8 to 12 inch rain events that occurred throughout the Ozarks. I saw a second round of frost flowers on the hike to see a scoured out streambank, a streambank with native spring vegetation like eel grass and coontail tangled in the canopy about 8 feet high. The crisp morning hike wasn't full of devastation in this natural setting. I will never proclaim that our natural systems are "resilient, dynamic and ever-changing" because they're not. We're dealing with highly disturbed ecosystems today, but to see the water levels in this karst landscape return to relatively regular pool after so much disturbance from an erratic flood event was somewhat reassuring. I have serious concerns about the caves at this site, including one with a river and a sump in it that connects to a spring, classic karst landscape. We ventured a few hundred feet into the cave and found a few bats but won't know the extent of the impact of gravel accretion, high water events and woody debris until we go in for longer than a short while as we did this week. Karst systems, while they may seem pretty resilient and sturdy because they're rock-based systems, are still sort of fragile: too much water flushing through the system can disrupt fragile flora and fauna including bats, invertebrates and herpetofauna in associated caves, springbranch biota, and water quality. The floodwaters have receded recently, leaving behind damaged structures well outside of the floodplain (so do they have flood insurance?), and we're only now assessing the damage to natural communities. If this is the new normal condition, events to be expected on an annual basis, I fear not only for the sustainability of natural communities but also for human habitation.

I had a nice hike this week through the uplands and even found a blooming spring wildflower, Isopyrum, but it's an anomaly, not the pattern. The days are definitely growing longer, and the window for burning native landscapes for the sustainability of natural communities is opening up, wide and clear. My Carnival decorations from New Orleans are out throughout my Craftsman bungalow, including a new set of purple/green/gold lights around the door. I overheard a server at my lunch restaurant today try to explain what an esteemed geologist group has proclaimed, the Anthropocene Epoch, a concept I think I wrote about three years ago, but now it's getting truck in the general public.

January is Norton month. Mardi Gras is really early this year so Carnival ramps up in January. The days are getting longer. The Australian Open begins in 8 days. Distractions!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Devastating Floods

Records rivaling the floods of 1993 have been broken on the Meramec River today, the announcement coming on the heels of horrific photos of an entire house being carried swiftly downstream. The Ozarks normally see heavy rain events in April and in November, but Christmas flooding on this level cannot be explained away as the effects of an El Nino. Roads around the Gasconade River remain closed as I write following another trip to the St. Louis Airport where I saw most of St. Charles underwater. This is not a natural event, this cannot be a natural event. One report from Highway 19 along the Current River is that river levels shot up to 30 ft.

I have navigated FEMA before in New Orleans and I will undoubtedly be brushing off my bureaucratic skills to work with them again in coming weeks and months once the damage has been assessed. From what I see tonight and in the past few days, the damage is severe. Very sad days for Missouri.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Winter Birding

The bright sunlight streams through the dirty windows unimpeded by the leafy canopy in my yard, casting long shadows on my equally dirty hardwood floors. Winter mornings, though hardly winter weather lately, include a routine of taking the dogs to the backyard while also filling the bird feeders, cleaning and refilling the bird bath, and restocking the suet cakes in the feeders hanging from the trees around the laundry line. The winter bird season was off to a great start last month with high numbers of dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows but the warm weather (or better feed elsewhere) has resulted in lackluster backyard birding. But it's winter bird survey and Christmas Bird Count week, so I'm getting my fill of seeing interesting birds in their natural habitat, in the woodlands and glades and streambanks of the Ozarks.

I take particular delight in finding the Missouri winter residents who spend their breeding season in the Boreal forests of Canada. Not only do we regularly see signs of yellow-bellied sapsuckers, the regular drumming in concentric circles around lots of different trees, but we know that we will regularly see these charismatic woodpeckers in a certain area. Like clockwork, we added them to our species list, lovely males showing up in the same area every year. We actually found them in more areas this year than in years past, this year serving as the 12th annual winter bird survey in one of my favorite places in the Western Ozarks.

With the weather patterns shifting to warmer temperatures, and birds able to find insects even in December, our total numbers were down this year. We documented 42 species with a notable lack of waterfowl in a freshwater spring which usually supports bufflehead, mallards, wood ducks, and blue-winged teal. No ducks this year, no cormorants basking in the warmth, and no kinglets flitting about from high to low branch. It wasn't the best birding week, but we kept with our protocol, our regular dates, our regular route, and were pleased to see that the Eastern bluebirds were still out on the south-facing slopes at 8am on a sunny morning. There is little in the world more beautiful than an Eastern bluebird couple in a post oak on a bluebird sky bright winter morning.

Maybe because I've run this winter bird survey route for 12 years, I predicted when we would see our hermit thrush. The only place I've seen the hermit thrush, Missouri's primary winter thrush besides the American Robin, is on a crummy cedar-filled trail through a bottomland woodland. The characteristic tail-bobbing of the hermit thrush was easier to spot than the breast and coloration. For 12 years running, we've seen the hermit thrush in the same area. Surely it's not the same bird, but there must be something in this landscape, this little patch of crummy cedars surrounded by fire-mediated awesome post oak-white oak-black oak woodlands that attracts hermit thrush. Check! We got it. We never found our kinglets, neither of them, actually, but picked up a suite of sparrows at a crummy fencerow with cedars and brush. A big part of me hates that some of the best birding is in crummy anthropogenic landscapes, but I also appreciate that even in our most damaged landscapes birds can still exist and thrive, at least during winter months.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

My 2015 Best of the Missouri Ozarks

I recently returned from a few days in the woods and nights in a really fantastic cabin. At the end of the year, many compile their lists of favorite music recordings, movies, and others, and I have been fortunate to spend a lot of time traveling the Ozarks this past year, I felt it incumbent that I would share my favorite places from this year. 2015 marks my ten year anniversary as a full time resident of Missouri and there are still a number of places I keep intending to visit but are pushed out of the way for reliable stand-bys. Further, a good number of great natural places have been destroyed in recent years, some great coffeeshops and wineries have closed, development has impacted the rustic nature of a lot of great spots and the wonderful cabins at Big Spring are still closed for renovation. So here's a list of my 2015 "Bests," not all time, but just from this past year.

Best Float Trip in 2015: Easy. The best (too short)float of the year was when my kid sister from Jackson Hole, Wyoming came to Missouri for a long weekend and we floated the Current River stretch from Baptist Camp to Akers Ferry. I told her in no uncertain terms that I do not recreate on Ozark rivers on weekends, so she would have to fly in early in the week. The beautiful weather and the popularity of the river stretch (chosen by us because it was close to home) brought out the motley assortment of domestic disputes and loud radios which certainly put a damper on the float. I explained that on a Tuesday in February it's just not like that. Nevertheless, the Baptist Camp to Akers Ferry float is a great 8 mile float which, in winter, can easily be stretched out into an overnight float with a few remaining secluded gravel bars, good fishing if you're into that kind of thing, and not too many roads allowing access from non-floaters. Regardless of the rowdiness of a random Thursday afternoon, my kid sister had fun and we look forward to the day when she brings her family to Current River country.

Best Float Outfitters in 2015:This one is a little bittersweet. I do love Akers Ferry Canoe Rentalbecause they are always open and they manage a fabulous stretch of the Current River, and they're close to home. However, I have historic particular fondness for a stretch of the Niangua River (another close to home stretch) that is currently being beat up from every development angle. The float outfitters at Ho-Humm are really lovely people. Ho-Humm offers winter floats and random day floats which, like Akers Ferry, allow floating to your car. The last time I went to Ho-Humm my friend there was not in good health. The river's health is declining dramatically and rapidly, as well. I am grateful I had the opportunity to regularly float the Bennett to Ho-Humm or Prosperine Access ten years ago. The river scene has changed, and not for the better ecologically or recreationally.

Best Cabin Rentals in 2015:

My favorite cabins this year include an old standby, the Royal W Resort in the White River Hills (pictured). Cindy is a wonderful hostess and these little 1950s cabins have small kitchenettes, comfortable beds, and Cindy's homemade soap in each bathroom. The Royal W Resort is a Cora Steyermark site for Ozark least trillium, a population of which the resort owners are well aware and protective. Also down in White River country is the Timbers Resort and Lodge near Shell Knob. Rustic but modern cabins with fireplaces and Christmas decorations in December, a very nice touch. These cabins have full kitchens and are located on Glade Lane, a drive through a huge stand of Ashe's juniper.

Best Coffee in 2015: This is a very important category and will undoubtedly result in my being chastised by friends. Coffee is vital to function and it must be available and fresh at all times of the day and night. It must be available in all reaches of tiny towns and small roads. If an option presents itself, such as needing coffee during normal working hours and an independently owned coffeeshop is nearby, I will invariably opt for that. However, McDonald's coffee is consistently reliable and there are McDonald's restaurants all over the place serving good, reliable, and inexpensive coffee at all hours of day and night. I cannot manage Folger's or any other robusto beans that are often served at diners and cafes. So, independent coffeeshops or McDonald's. Casey's gas stations apparently have good coffee but I haven't tried it yet.

Best Norton in 2015: Noboleis Vineyards, the beautiful setting on rolling hills near Augusta, has produced a Norton Reserve that is absolutely stunning. There are so many capable Nortons being produced in Missouri, but the Noboleis 2012 Norton Reserve knocked my socks off. As with all other Nortons, this one should be served in the Reidel Norton stem. This is not a gravel bar wine to be consumed out of a plastic cup.

Best Wildflower Display in 2015: The wet spring resulted in robust wildflower displays in May and June. On a hike in late May through a glade belt in the Niangua Basin (burned in February 2015), the explosion of Echinacea was matched with every other awesome glade plant that appeared to be on steroids. Spring and summer 2015 were very flowery, providing beautiful memories to take us through these short and cloudy days of mid-December.