Saturday, May 27, 2017

Turtles Crossing, Slow Down

I remember exactly where I was on Rt. BB outside of Montreal when I pulled over to the shoulder to move my first box turtle from the road. I was on my way to open the gates as part of my job description. I needed to be on Hwy D by 6:45am to open gates, and there I was at 6:30 pulling over on the road to move not one but two box turtles who were booking their way across the road. At the crest of the hill, I pulled my Honda Civic over to the tiny shoulder so I could get out and hike the road to move the turtles. I really didn't know how to operate my new-to-me 1995 stick shift Honda Civic. I certainly didn't know what to do when I encountered a hill in Arkansas and asked a stranger to drive my car to the top of the hill so I could continue on my journey. I bought that car without knowing how to drive it from a mechanic in Westwego, Louisiana who said that he didn't rag out that clutch too bad, dawg. Great car. It has 325K miles on it at this time.

So I pulled over to the small shoulder and at the time I didn't know that when a stick shift car is on a hill, one needs to put it in a certain gear with the emergency brake. No, I had barely learned how to drive the damned thing before I migrated to Missouri. I thought I was going to need a heat lamp for the engine, with no clue about the severity of the winters here. My supervisor laughed when I asked about that. So, when I saw the turtles I pulled over to the shoulder and just turned off the car so I could walk back down the road to move them. I moved the turtles to a safe place, and when I turned around, my car was moving down the slope and ended up in a ditch. Shit. No cell phone service, I didn't know a soul in Missouri besides my employer, I was already late opening the gates. Eventually a truck came by and saw me in my stupid uniform standing next to my 1995 Honda Civic that was pretty well entrenched into the ditch. As most kind Ozarkers will do, the guy in the truck asked if I needed help. After a big description about how I was moving turtles and my car migrated downslope he sort of laughed, and hitched a rope to some mechanism on my car that allowed it to be towed back out to BB. He had to be on his way and I asked if I could pay him or send him a check or something, but he laughed and said "just keep on saving those turtles." He laughed heartily, so I think he was pulling my proverbial string. Thank heavens for men with trucks and rope in the Ozarks. Since that time in 2003 I have been saved twice more by men in trucks. They never take my money, but I have been able to pay at least one in wild blackberries.

So, after a good rain in the spring the box turtles start crossing the roads. I don't think they're migrating, I think they're looking for the warmth of the road but they always seem so persistent in their direction. It's definitely the worst part of spring, driving Ozark roads and seeing box turtles trying to cross--the good people slow down and avoid them, or pull over to move them. The black-hearted people go out of their way and onto the shoulder to run over them. When you see a dead turtle on a shoulder, that's not just a regular highway death, that's someone who went off the road to kill a turtle. There's a special place in hell for people who do that. Anyway, it's heartbreaking to see so many turtles on the road.

Because they don't move very quickly, turtles are easy to avoid hitting if the driver is paying attention. We avoided 6 turtles today on a short drive from Columbia to Camdenton. I've talked to the head herpetologist in the state and, to date, there is no one measuring the impacts of road mortality on population dynamics in Missouri. I've seen hideous reports from Florida of road mortality on herpetofauna that resulted in the county making more friendly roadways and such. Our box turtles are so ubiquitous that initiating any kind of legislation to protect them is pie in the sky. I love encountering Eastern box turtles and while I recognize that road mortality must be playing a huge role in their sustainability, I like to think that when they exist in natural areas they are well protected and can perform their entire life cycle in the Ozarks.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

May 10: Migratory Bird Day

When I woke up last week at 5:45am to the calls of a white-eyed vireo and a Tennessee warbler amidst the din of house wren chatter, I knew that my wintering white-throated sparrows had probably moved on overnight. Today is the big day for my local Audubon chapter where we fan out across the county to count birds. May 10th was officially Migratory Bird Day, so today is the official Big Day for listers. Aside from beefing up individual eBird lists, my chapter continues to collect data in designated circles just as we have for 50 years, data kept separately from eBird for our own edification.

This week, reports from the World Bird Sanctuary came in that the thrushes were thick in their migration mist nets. That white eye ring and lilting call of the Swainson's thrush are unmistakeable; I saw at least twenty of them on hikes Tuesday and Wednesday. Just as I was alerting my Audubon chapter that I had a new visitor in my yard, a dapper white-crowned sparrow, a fellow chapter member who lives on the block reported four of them in his yard. And then I saw a deceased one on my walk around the block with my schnauzer.

The weather radar has picked up the traveling birds on their nighttime northward migration; huge fields of disturbance show up all over Missouri and especially along the Mississippi River flyway. With the epic travels come also the big devastation of bird deaths due to collisions with buildings. Thousands of birds die during migration because of lighted buildings. Early versions of cell towers with certain kinds of lighting colors and patterns with guy wires also kill birds during migration. Proper siting and lighting on cell towers and turning off lights in high rise buildings can greatly diminish bird mortality, research shows.

The morning chorus usually begins with an American robin at 4:30 and then the yard erupts into hundreds of bird calls by sunrise. With the windows open I can detect the stranger birds, the ones who only stick around for a fleeting period of time. I have the welcome mat open to all of them, the ones passing through or staying a while during breeding season: clean water in the bird bath, seed and suet feeders still up, three hummingbird feeders, a canopied yard full of native flora and plenty of insect life, a brushpile and shrubby areas that the Northern cardinals have already set up a nest in, and nest boxes for the chickadees and house wrens. I do love seeing the annual visit of common yellowthroats in my urban backyard. Spring migration is well underway, a little later than in past years, but in full swing this month.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Catastrophic: The Ozarks will not be the same.

It was roughly a year ago that I tracked down a climate change scientist and asked him to write an article for a newsletter I edit about his recent research in the change in rainfall patterns in the Ozarks. His elucidating study from Missouri State University showed that through time, rainfall events in the Big Barren Creek in the Current River watershed were increasing in intensity; higher rainfall amounts in a shorter duration are becoming the norm. The increased carbon amounts in the atmosphere are changing weather patterns. For most people with a basic understanding of science and the fact that we cannot possibly imagine that pumping as much carbon into the atmosphere from our coal-fired plants and tailpipes wouldn't have an impact on the atmosphere, this is not news. Nevertheless, climatologists have data.

The floodwaters are beginning to recede so we can finally grasp the damage caused by this catastrophe. I know many buildings have been washed downstream leaving only foundations and slabs. Rivers will not be ready for floaters by Memorial Day, and who knows how many outfitters will even still be around. Rivers have surely reshaped themselves, and we should accept that rather than attempt to control them. Last week's event may not be the last flood of this magnitude with the changing climate.

I know that we've passed the threshold on parts per billion of carbon in the atmosphere and now weather patterns are unpredictable, erratic at best. Climate change is resulting in increased turbulence in air traffic. Climate change is causing extreme weather patterns. I recommend reading Bill McKibben's Eaarth: Life on a New Planet for a good description of climate change's impacts.

Understanding and accepting climate change is not like a belief in the Catholic religion or the afterlife, climate change deniers possess instead a misunderstanding of the natural world. With this round of floods in the Ozarks, people have lost their lives, their homes, their way of life. Some folks are comparing this to the floods of 1993 and 1995 which resulted in large areas of the Missouri River floodplain to return to nature, areas taken out of farming. The effects of soil erosion, of debris, of failed septic systems, of exotic species, and of hazardous chemicals cannot even be fathomed at this time. Climate change is not debatable and at this point it's irreversible.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Searching for Slipper Orchids in the Ozarks

Stepping out of the car on a chilly and cloudy morning this week, I could see the green-up in the understory. Lots of wildflowers in bloom and lots of perennials like rattlesnake master all coming up through the burned landscape. It's been several years since I've seen this population of yellow lady slipper orchids, a super charismatic plant but one that the deer love. With a burgeoning deer population, our slipper orchid population dwindled to the point of potential extinction, so we installed large 16 ft. cattle panels to create an exclosure to see if the plants would come up inside versus outside the exclosure. For the past three years, the orchids haven't come up at all, or, they've come up but been browsed off by hungry deer before we could detect them.

Yellow lady slipper orchids are not particularly rare, but they are loyal to intact soil profiles and are generally associated with high quality natural communities. On my hike this week, we sauntered into super high quality habitat, one free of exotic species and with intact soils and a suite of other native plants. The steep slope was a nightmare to navigate in my lousy running shoes, but between the large populations of goldenseal and other moist, mesic-loving species, I was able to traverse the hillside without causing ecological damage. Step by step, don't step on plants.

We counted 34 stems this week, an increase of 34 stems from last year when we couldn't document a single plant. These lovely orchids are particularly favored by deer, which may account for the low stem counts in years' past. While I still think there are too many deer in this location, seeing so many slipper orchids is a sign that maybe the deer are on the run or lower in density than I previously thought. Spotlight counts are showing low numbers, as well. With deer populations increasing across Missouri, we need to consider that this population's low count may be erratic. It's nice to see the slipper orchids again, and their appearance correlates to the low deer density of the spotlight counts and browse surveys. Is it coincident?

Nevertheless, it was great to visit a high quality natural community to verify a population of a rare plant. Aside from the slipper orchids we also documented black and white warblers, Louisiana waterthrush, and common yellowthroat warblers. Visiting nice natural systems is always a treat, a visit to invariably see many more species than I was hoping to see. This week was not unlike the rest.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

10 Years of Norton: Stone Hill's Vertical Tasting

About a year ago, my lovely friends from South Carolina, the Norton Wine Travelers, sent me an email and copied fellow Norton enthusiasts from Nebraska inviting us to the 2017 Norton Vertical Tasting Dinner at Stone Hill Winery in Hermann. I had never formally met the couple from Nebraska, and I had only visited the Norton Wine Travelers in person once or twice before though we're frequent correspondents. We all "met" through Catch Wine, a fun website where one can write reviews of local wineries. The Norton Wine Travelers, who are also magnolia scholars and collectors, contacted me years ago after reading my lengthy reviews of Missouri Nortons. With the couple from Nebraska and other Norton fans, the International Norton Wine Society was formed. Our friendship formed because we appreciate Norton. This is not a secret to anyone who knows me.

And so, Saturday, April 8 rolled around and we descended on Hermann along with other magnolia friends and wine enthusiasts from California who were a little unfamiliar with this outstanding grape. While I was working, they all explored the Hermann area's wine country and collected wine. Lots of wine. One may not be aware of this, but South Carolina, very unlike Missouri, is not known for producing supple, palatable dry wines, so trips to Missouri often result in cellar-stocking purchases. They are true ambassadors of the Norton grape; they keep the registry of all the Norton producers and give such fun reviews. They've even shared with me examples from premier Virginia wineries, Texas wineries and too many other to count. At this point, I still prefer many Missouri Nortons over all the others.

The evening of the tasting, we walked up that steep hill to Stone Hill from the city park where the NWTs had set up their camper for the week. Lovely appetizers and Stone Hill's terrific sparkling Blanc du Blanc circulated. I finally met the charming Nebraska couple whose reviews I had read, while showering them with my compliments to Nebraska's wines which I first discovered on my way to Jackson Hole in 2008. As the sun set on the vineyard, we moved inside to be greeted with large farmhouse tables with ten perfectly polished Reidel Norton glasses, all with three ounces of ten years of Norton vintages. At the base of the glass, they had written the year with a small Sharpie marker. "Pong. Pong. Pong" went the glasses while folks surreptitiously began tasting all of this delicious wine while the emcee for the night talked about Norton, the history of Stone Hill Winery, and Missouri wine. It's hard to be quiet when ten crystal glasses are resting next to one another but, you really want to start tasting.

We all had a sheet before us with winemaker's notes on each vintage. 2007, the hard frost year that turned the woodland canopy to black leaves in April, was "leaner in style than the 2008, perhaps more Bordeaux-like with a complex mix of fruit, oak and hints of pencil shavings and dried herbs." Yes, each vintage had its own lengthy descriptors and space for personal notes. Interestingly, lined up side by side, one could note obvious differences in color through the years; the 2007 was a brick red while the barrel tasting of 2015 resembled a Beaujolais Nouveau. My favorite, hands down, was the 2012 vintage, the drought year, a "vintage like no other...producing the softest, lowest acid Norton ever, showing ripe blackberry and cassis with sweet oak notes and ripe tannins." If I could afford it, I would have picked up a case of the 2012. Which brings me to the cynical comment overheard at my table: "I think I see what's going on. They serve a fancy dinner, a lot of wine and a vertical tasting as a way to unload their older vintages."

Yes, maybe the evening was ultimately designed to make money, make lots of money off of Norton enthusiasts, but it was a delicious meal, full of fabulous wine, and the best part was the camaraderie with the society members. And that 2001 vintage served with dinner.

If you've never perused Catch Wine, settle in and be prepared for a treat. You'll learn that a lot of folks are still smitten with sweet wine, but the dry drinkers offer lengthy reviews of wineries. Once while scrolling through the reviews to map a route through Oklahoma, I read an hysterical review of a winery-alpaca operation where the unsuspecting winery guests were being strong-armed into buying not wine, but alpaca. It made for a great story, but the winery had closed so I couldn't visit. Join in on the fun, and when you see that lovely rhododendron photo, you'll know you're reading the review of quite possibly the most knowledgeable Norton enthusiast, the founder of the Norton Wine Society and cherished friend.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Spring comes to the Ozarks

Despite the past week's downright gloomy and cold weather, it's difficult to stay indoors when I know spring wildflowers are in bloom. On March 9, I noted my first-of-the-year blooming hoary puccoon, a flower that normally doesn't bloom until mid-April. However, it was on a glade we burned in January so those warm February days certainly tricked it to come up early.

Morel season and the spring peeper chorus are well underway. Too, areas rich with bush honeysuckle are particularly striking, but in a bad way. This allelopathic exotic shrub is taking over the state, mostly in urban areas but could easily escape into more rural settings. And it simply ruins the spring wildflower display. Without the bright, leaf-off canopy of early spring, socked in under honeysuckle which greens up before everything else, the delicate white petals of anemones and bloodroot have no chance.

Bluebells started blooming a couple of weeks ago, definitely among my favorite of the spring wildflowers. And Dutchman's breeches are coming on strong this week. It's no surprise that many of us are out of the office on a routine basis at this time of year. I have my eyes peeled for the springtime bee that feeds on spring beauty, out for a short time during the bloom cycle then back underground until next spring. The fleeting nature of spring in the Ozarks makes it imperative to get out, hike around, and marvel at these diverse floral displays.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Rally in the 100 Acre Wood

Sidled up next to our friend Dylan last Sunday at Flatbranch, I learned about his weekend activities. He had gone to Salem to visit friends and to take a hike when his local guide suggested they go to the woods to watch a car race. He's not particularly into car racing, but to his surprise, this European-style rally was a big deal. Spectators lined the narrow gravel roads to watch as national and international drivers and their lone map-reading passenger took to the winding roads outside of Salem.

The Rally in the 100 Acre Wood occurred last weekend in not only Salem, but outside of Potosi and Sullivan in what is described as among the most scenic rallies of the National Rally America circuit. From their website, I learned that the races covered "over 120 racing miles that will test rally teams from all across the country (and several foreign countries) on a variety of gravel road surfaces." The event happened March 17-18 and began with a rally car show and opening ceremony. Rally teams competed throughout each day, passing multiple spectator points, and returned to Salem Saturday night. My friend watched from the woods while rally cars with driver and guide names plastered on the side whizzed by. I don't know how much local participation there is for this race, but he mentioned a tricked-out Ford Focus on the circuit that really surprised him with its speed and agility.

Before the race, at the opening ceremonies, spectators were allowed to see the cars and mingle with the drivers, and to take photos with them and their cars. Considering the state of some of our gravel roads in the Ozarks, I would also think that this is probably one of the more harrowing rallies on the national circuit. I drive a 2001 Honda Civic and sometimes have a hard time traversing the roads to wineries, long and winding paths with boulders and potholes. I'm convinced one day I'll lose my oil pan on my way to a winery or going down a Forest Service road in my car. With the amount of preparation and the national status of this Rally in the 100 Acre Wood, I feel confident road crews made this raceway a smooth route. It sure will be nice for all the Dent Co. morel hunters.