Sunday, December 31, 2006

"...we are in View of the Ocian..."



In November 1805, Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific Ocean. Upon seeing the vast wide mouth of the Columbia River, Clark's records in his journal "Great joy in camp We are in View of the Ocian, this great Pacific Ocean which we been so long anxious to see." What he was actually seeing was the Columbia River estuary (pictured), a marsh and forested area that still supports hundreds of acres of enormous Douglas fir and Sitka spruce trees. The explorers realized the mistake after they hopped back into the canoe and made their way to the craggy beaches of the Oregon Coast a few miles away.

They pitched camp for the winter near the spot that they had first thought was the ocean, near the mouth of the Columbia in what is now Astoria, Oregon. Their Fort Clatsop has been recreated and has been a tourist draw for 50 years. Vandals torched it last year and the park service rushed to rebuild it before the end of the Lewis and Clark commemoration. The hoopla surrounding the anniversary of Lewis and Clark's journey west hasn't really impacted visitation at the site, which maintains a steady stream of visitors year-round.

In fact, according to a Wall Street Journal article this summer, tourism boards and commercial outfits in every state along the Lewis and Clark Trail have been extremely disappointed at the low visitation records associated with the commemoration. In St. Charles, Missouri, where the expedition started, organizers anticipated 50,000 visitors for a 10-day Lewis and Clark festival and only 5,000 showed up. Great Falls, Montana ended up $535,000 in debt after putting on an extravaganza that originally cost the city $1.6 million to organize. It has been estimated that all told, $70 million to $100 million have been spent by city, state, federal and private coffers countrywide to celebrate Lewis and Clark's trip out west.


Speculators point to the lack of true heroism Lewis and Clark portray; after the expedition, Lewis committed suicide and Clark worked to keep Indian tribes confined to reservations. Maybe it was the explorers' abysmal treatment of the Native Americans that have kept tourists away from Lewis and Clark sites. Or maybe Americans just don't care about their history. Nevertheless, in Missouri, as in Oregon, state agencies have placed well-written and thoroughly researched markers at significant sites. The Lewis and Clark Trail in Missouri takes the driver through charming river towns with a lot of sharp turns along the way. Some of the smaller towns, like WAshington, Missouri built Lewis and Clark motels and inns, in anticipation of tourism dollars. A private donor in St. Charles sponsored a nice Lewis and Clark museum and statue in their riverside park. If these are generating tourism dollars, I don't know. But the Cape Girardeau Lewis and Clark site remains closed most of the time due to lack of interest.

There have been about a hundred books written by writers who have driven, hiked, biked or paddled the Lewis and Clark Trail. People follow the trail, and they buy the books about the trail, but they don't attend the hoaky historical reenactments. The modern Corps of Discovery has had almost as many trials as the original expedition. Members quit because of the working conditions, the dog portraying Seaman died.

In Astoria, Oregon, standing like a lighthouse on a 600 foot hill is a Trajanic column built in the 1920s celebrating the founding of the town. Called the Astoria Column (pictured), the concrete frescoes that wrap around it offer a pictoral history of the first American settlement west of the Rockies. The Lewis and Clark encampment is only part of the city's story that began in 1792 with Englishman Robert Gray's expedition. Climbing to the top of the column affords stellar views of the surrounding landscape and the not-so-distant ocean. Down the coast from Astoria are magnetite beaches, recently littered with tons of kelp (pictured; I was floored by the kelp.) and debris following the recent storms. Lewis and Clark markers are scattered up and down the Oregon coast, and Oregonians had them in place years before the commemoration. People come to Oregon for the great scenery, Mt. Hood, Portland, the pinot noir, but it appeared to me that people were reading the Lewis and Clark markers, too.

Astoria is a very liveable city. The landscape, however, is changing; ten years ago it was a port city with a hardware store and a couple of restaurants. Now, it's a getaway town for Portlanders, a small town with chowder shops, rocky beaches and awesome Craftsman-style homes. Astoria would be a great place to spend a few years, or, like Lewis and Clark, at least a winter season.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Christmas Bird Count

In the 19th century, there was a popular Christmas sport called the "side hunt" where a party would split into two groups and go off hunting. Whichever group came back with the most game, usually birds, was considered the winner. The tradition worried ornithologist Dr. Frank Chapman and in 1900 he started what he hoped would become an annual tradition, the Christmas Bird Count. Over 100 years later, the count is still conducted. Now it serves as a method for understanding winter bird populations.

The Audubon Society is in charge of the CBC. They have designated count "circles," areas with various habitat requirements that are significant enough to represent winter bird populations. Within that circle, birdwatchers count individual birds, not just species. After a full day of birding in Missouri, bird counts often reflect hundreds of cardinals, flickers and juncos with species counts ranging from 60 to 120. The local state park is lucky to be the nucleus of a bird count circle. Luckier still is that since 1965, when the circle designation was assigned, bird population data for the park has been collected and stored online. You can see how many pintail were there in 1965, how many brown creepers in 1980, and so on. Audubon uses the CBC information to track changes in North American bird populations. In recent years, for example, hooded merganser populations in New England have soared while grosbeaks have declined.

Bird counters are generally glad to see and count any birds, but the more uncommon species are the real gems. Everyone looks for the migrant who never left or the aberrant species who hasn't been recorded from the area. If the bird is really uncommon, you have to document the occurrence. My common yellowthroat last December had to be documented because it was so uncommon. Neal had the only blue gray gnatcatcher in the state at Mingo NWR. That one, too, had to be documented.

We had our bird count on Friday, a 65 degree day with no wind and clear skies. The park's count circle is a large area that includes Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area and countless farms and abandoned barns (great for barn owls. We counted 3.). I set out around 6 am to catch a few owls (2 barred, 1 great horned) and didn't end the day until 6 pm, just as 2 short-eared owls flapped across a field. Our group of 8 was divided into four teams of retired ornithology professors from St. Louis, a few enthusiasts who have attended the count since 1965 and my teammates, a wetlands biologist from central Missouri and a novice who gladly served as the recorder. Neal, the biologist, is an outstanding birder. He didn't even bring a field guide (I had 2.). We were the youngest birders in the whole group, but Neal's expertise blew me away. Just as we set out, we heard a single chip note that he declared as a palm warbler, a very rare winter visitor. Dubious, I held us up waiting for that flash of chestnut streaking on the back. He was right. And I was duly impressed. This happened repeatedly with lapland longspurs, red shouldered hawks, flocks of Ross' geese. By noon, I realized not to question Neal.

We each had a short list of birds we really wanted to see. I wanted LeConte's sparrows and Bewick's wrens, Neal wanted a phoebe, and Jeremy, the checklist keeper who never used his binoculars, wanted a loggerhead shrike. All the swamp, song, Lincoln's and fox sparrows in the world weren't as exciting as the prospect of a LeConte's. We saw the shrike at the end of the day and never got a phoebe or the LeConte's.

The warm weather, while great for us, kept a lot of normally common winter birds at bay. We picked up only a handful of white throated sparrows, 2 robins, and no one saw a snipe or a pipit. There was only one killdeer recorded for the whole circle. Last year's 35,000 snow geese dwindled to a mere 5,000 this year. When Audubon publishes their report in October, they'll likely mention the warm weather and explain the effects on wintering populations.

It's great fun to go birding with serious bird watchers like Neal. He spends weekends in the Phillipines looking for a single hummingbird. The quest for "life list birds" is unrelenting. I'm not experienced enough to be considered a real birder, but I enjoy the competition of finding different species. I pulled together my paltry life list over the summer and despite a few great south American birds and the Gulf Coast cadre, my list is really small. I check out local birds wherever I go, but I've never flown to Thailand for a hawk. Neal can see a pine warbler from 2 miles away and I have to wait for it to land right in front of me.

I'm heading to the Oregon Coast this week. During last year's Coos Bay CBC, counters found high numbers of snowy owls and Townsend's warblers. I'm hoping to see some auklets and murres, maybe even a curlew sandpiper. I'm going to chip away at my life list this year and become a better birder. That way, Neal won't have to work so hard next year.

Monday, December 11, 2006

River otters

I don't know what's going on. There's been water in the swamp since September, the ditch system is full, fields remain flooded and the Mississippi River isn't at flood stage. I don't think the engineers of the area are thrilled with this, but it's good to see water where it should be, even if it's the wrong time of year. Winter is traditionally the time of year when swamps dry out. Late fall and winter rains slowly fill swamp systems, often peaking in the spring, but a swamp with standing water since September is not natural. Footage from the White River basin in Arkansas shows birders paddling through the swamps during early spring and walking through the cypress knees during the fall. Water is important when it nourishes cypresses and kills drought-tolerant trees that don't belong in bottomland hardwood systems. But when trees are dormant, as they are now, all the water in the world won't kill them.

I'm not complaining about all the water. The habitat benefits have been great. Wood ducks hang out all day, four hooded mergansers were paddling around the shrub swamp this morning and pied billed grebes are seen there every afternoon. With all the extra water for the past few months now, I've seen a group of 6 otters playing in the swamp and running the waterlogged ditches through the park. They clearly wouldn't be able to do this without all the water. During any one season, otters can be active along as few as 3 to 10 miles of shoreline but during one year they can run along 50 to 100 miles of shoreline. They've created a circuit of the local ditches, traveling from behind the house to the park along a manmade ditch, eating oversized carp and catfish all along the way. They leave the head skulls and tails for Molly to find.

Otters burrow in the abandoned homes of beavers and muskrats but make their own noticeable entrances, with part of the entrance above water and the rest underwater. The ears and nose close when the animal goes underwater, and the eyes are arranged on the top of the head so they can see above water. When they're out looking for food, otters cruise along the water's surface, using the tail as a rudder. When fish are found, they arch the back and dive in with strong leg strokes to capture the animal. They then pull their prey out of the water onto land and rip it to bits. Last winter, when the swamp was dry, I found a collection of at least 30 southern painted turtle shells that had been ripped apart by otters on a log. I was able to conduct an informal mussel survey thanks to their midden that included 6 different mussel species.

Otters are one of the few animals whose social nature has been recorded. They enjoy sliding down muddy slopes with all four feet folded out of the way with no purpose in mind. They toss mussels and rocks to one another and are generally sociable animals. I mainly see them when they are playing in a small group, yipping, diving and swimming in circles. Before this year I had only known sea otters from the aquarium. My friend Peter is an expert with these animals; sea otters indulge in the same playful behavior and exhibit the same violence towards their prey as river otters. I remember too well the day aquarium staff, without Peter, threw a bunch of grain-fed trout in with the sea otters. The tank turned into a bloodbath, with trout ripped apart in front of Friday's school groups and the water clouded by all the gore. While playful, otters are not gentle animals.

Otter populations in Missouri were at an all-time low in the late 1930s, when the fur trade knocked down the population to roughly 70 individuals in southeast Missouri. In 1982, a state agency released a few hundred otters along the Missouri River and affiliated streams to help repopulate the state. Thanks to stocked farm ponds and fish hatcheries around the state, otters have rebounded and have actually become a nuisance to sport fishermen. The trapping industry is not as active as it was in the 1930s, and otters are thriving. The state agency conducted a survey last summer along the Current River investigating the population density of these playful animals. Now, they've discovered, there are too many otters in Missouri. It's sounding a lot like the white-tailed deer issue...

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Mistletoe


On the park's southwest edge, the sycamore sticks out like a sore thumb. With all the leaves gone, the infestation of mistletoe high in the sycamore's canopy is evident. Long held to be a true parasite, a destroyer of trees, mistletoe is a welcome sight in southeast Missouri.

Last winter when I saw the first plant, I called my boss, the Chief of the Natural History program, to let him know it was here. He was delighted and asked me to take pictures for documentation. It's an obligate plant in the southeast U.S. and its presence here represents Missouri's southeast U.S. heritage. Mistletoe is actually a hemiparasite, a plant that uses the host tree for water and minerals but manufactures its own food by photosynthesis. It doesn't necessarily kill healthy trees, but when the root system of mistletoe weakens high canopy branches, it causes leaf loss, which is incidentally what Chief wants to see: breaks in the canopy that allow light to hit the forest floor. Phoradendron flavescens is only known from a few counties in Missouri. It's range is the embayment, east to Virginia, then west to the Current River drainage along the Arkansas border. Worldwide there are roughly 1400 different species of mistletoe.

Mistletoe, named after the Anglo-Saxon words "mistel," meaning dung and "tan" meaning branch, is spread by birds. Waxy white berries borne on the female plants are particularly tasty to thrushes and cedar waxwings. As birds feed on the berries, they excrete the seed in tact onto another branch, where it attaches with slight, sticky hairs. The root system of mistletoe breaks through the tree bark and pierces the living tissue where it derives water and minerals to help the plant grow. Agencies concerned with timber harvest and fruit production describe terrible "outbreaks" caused by mistletoe. The plant only grows on certain species of deciduous trees, including elms, tupelos, sycamores and, in Florida, pecan trees.

Research has shown that infestations tend to occur in monoculture plantations, where all the trees are of the same size and age class, and in areas that have been clearcut but for a couple of trees. In healthy woods with a developed midstory and understory, birds have plenty of perching sites and the chances are slim that all of the perch sites will be the trees that mistletoe requires. Mistletoe is a lot like poison ivy: people hate it because they think it kills forests, but both plants are integral parts of a healthy forest. Mistletoe and poison ivy produce high quality food for wintering birds and we probably wouldn't have as many thrushes without them.

Every year around Christmas, Daddy and I used to head out to the woods to blast mistletoe out of the oaks with shotguns. We'd distribute bundles of the evergreen plant to neighbors to hang above their doorways. This tradition is only loosely based in Scandinavian culture, wherein Vikings represented the goddess of love, Figga, with bundles of mistletoe hung above their doors. The plant represents eternal life and love because it remains green throughout the year. Nevertheless, Daddy and I never really thought about the impact we were inflicting on the mistletoe population when we shot it down in large clumps. But, in fact, we weren't making an impact at all. Even without the green parts of the plant, mistletoe lives in the tree until the host branch dies. And that probably explains why we went back to the same place every December with a box of shells.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The Western Edge


I spent part of Thanksgiving in Monroe, Louisiana, which is situated on the western edge of the embayment and the eastern edge of Tertiary Uplands, a habitat characterized by mixed pine-hardwood forests and sandy ridges. A visit to my father's wouldn't be complete without a trip to Black Bayou National Wildlife Refuge, a small acreage dedicated to preserving the swamp habitat that everyone associates with Louisiana and southeast Missouri.

At Black Bayou, bur marigolds and sugar plume grass were in full bloom across the swamp. Rails clucked from the grasses and vermilion flycatchers zipped around the tupelo gums. This week marks the 1st anniversary of my arrival to the southeast Missouri lowlands. Because I moved here in the winter, I had full hopes that when spring and summer came the swamps would come alive with the same plants and animals I had associated with places like Black Bayou. It didn't quite happen that way. I clearly didn't know the diversity of various regions of the Mississippi Embayment before I took this job.

The visit to Black Bayou reminded me of the massive changes that southeast Missouri has seen. East of Crowley's Ridge, a lot of the keystone embayment species do not exist. Bur marigolds should be here, so should sugar plume grass. What separates Black Bayou in northeast Louisiana from the swamps of southeast Missouri is a massive ditch system created by a handful of engineers, reeling from the success of the Panama Canal. By 1893, with most of the timber out of the way, engineers saw that southeast Missouri could be drained, farmed and forever changed. In 1905, Missouri Gov. Joseph Wingate signed a bill permitting the formation of the Little River Drainage District which would be supported by tax revenues. Railroad magnates like Louis Houck opposed the district because they wanted to maintain the railroads as the main line of transport for the timber industry and small farms. With the drainage district in place, roads could be installed which would negatively impact the Cotton Belt, Frisco, St. Louis and Iron Mountain railroad lines. But by 1909, with chief engineer Otto Kochtitsky at the helm, the drainage of 750,00 acres into an elaborate ditch system began.

Born in South Bend, Indiana to Polish aristocrats, Kochtitsky was moved to Missouri at a young age and attended schools in Lebanon and Jefferson City. His father was a land commissioner in the state department. He encouraged his son to follow suit and Otto, as a young adult, was placed in charge of surveying the Little River Valley for railroad installation. Otto was hired in 1905 to survey the topography of the southeast lowlands to determine whether a largescale ditching project would be possible. Not only did he report his findings, but Kochtitsky drew up a plan and quickly won the contract bid to conduct the actual drainage project. His invention of the walking excavator made ditch installation a lot easier and the ditching of southeast Missouri's swamps and wetlands was completed by the early 1920s. Kochtitsky's correspondence and legal papers are on file at the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis and you can read more here about the history of the Little River Drainage District.

If you go to the various storehouses of Missouri history and ask the curators for historical pictures of southeast Missouri, you'll get boxes of photos from the Little River Drainage District files. There are no pictures of forests or swamps, but thousands, literally thousands of photos of stumps and deep ditches, all carefully labeled and named. Beaver Lake became Headwater Diversion #2, Cypress Pond is now Mainline Ditch #1, and so on. The stumps stretched for miles. I have a copy of the original Kochtitsky survey map that shows where the ditches should be placed to drain the swamps more efficiently. Outside the drainage district, Missouri's rivers and streams curve so circuitously they look like a drawing of a brain. East of Crowley's Ridge, the rivers and wetlands flow in straight lines, all the way to the Arkansas border.

After living here, it's nice to revisit places that haven't been touched by ditch and levee systems. The plants and animals of the embayment certainly deserve as much respect as, say, the plants and animals of the Arctic tundra. I can now spot embayment plants from a mile away, but I'm still not very good with invertebrates. It's been a real treat to learn thoroughly every aspect of a habitat and to understand exactly what's required to make the whole system work, even if it's within a small confine that wasn't spared in the ditching project. Unless I change my career for the umpteenth time I'll have the chance to learn other natural divisions just as well. And frankly, what fun is life if you're not learning?

Friday, November 17, 2006

Keep looking up!

The Leonid meteor showers peak tomorrow night around midnight. In North America, the best viewing will be in New England and New York, but if it's a clear night the rest of the country could see as many as 10 to 20 meteors per hour. These meteors are the remains of Comet Tempel-Tuttle which last passed us by in 1998, so a lot of debris will be hitting the atmosphere.

The new moon skies of southeast Missouri are crystal clear and the mosquitoes aren't biting like they were during August's Perseids. So, as the last (usually crummy) sketch ends on Saturday Night Live, head out and look up.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The one who creeps into holes


We've seen three inches of rain in two days. A few days ago, without mucking my good shoes, I walked through woods that are now flooded with blue-winged teal swimming in them. Such is the dynamic nature of bottomland hardwood forests.

James Bayou rose quickly. It always does after a rain event. As the township's only natural waterway, all the fields drain into it causing a rapid swelling of sediment-laden waters. The flooded bayou has caused all the tiny winter wrens to abandon their preferred habitat, the brushy bayou edge, to forage for food in my constructed brushpiles and feeding "stations." Averaging 4 inches long, the same size as a kinglet, winter wrens (Troglodytes troglodytes) are hardly ever seen flying around. They're most often spotted flitting in and out of holes in logs and running the forest floor between shrubs. They are the only wren out of 59 other wren species to live outside the New World. According to the esteemed Cornell Lab of Ornithology, they expanded their range by crossing the Bering Sea land bridge and now live in Japan, Siberia, Taiwan and North Africa. In England, the winter wren is simply known as a wren since it's the only species who lives there.

The wintering population in southeast Missouri is most likely the population that spends its spring and summer in the high coniferous forests of nearby Appalachia. Professional birders are able to distinguish populations by slight differences in the bird's call, but I'm not a professional. The Appalachian birds may sound very different from the Canadian birds, just as folks from North Carolina sound different from the Quebecois. Like most wrens, the winter wren's song is loud and boisterous, but unlike other species', the song lasts 7 to 10 seconds, 2 to 4 seconds longer than the Carolina and house wrens' song. The customary call during the non-breeding period is a series of high pitch chips. They chip and flit about like juncos, scampering around decomposing stumps and logs in small groups.

Deep in the woods, I've noticed they hang out with swamp sparrows, white-throated sparrows, golden-crowned kinglets and juncos, all of whom rush off to the nearest shrub when you run past them. Even if you can't see them up close, the winter wrens' tails are noticeably shorter, stubbier than the tails of Carolina and house wrens. There are only three other species in the area during the winter, the Carolina, the marsh and the sedge wren, and all three of them are larger birds with longer tails than the winter wren.

I don't know if this year's winter wren population is particularly high for this part of Missouri. Last year's Christmas Bird Count report showed the highest populations were in southeast Missouri, but I don't recall see as many as I'm seeing this year. Once the water recedes from the bayou and they have their buttonbush and privet swamp to live in, the winter wrens will leave the high ground of my backyard for their preferred habitat. I've had a good chance to learn their behavior, so on that cold Christmas Bird Count morning, I'll be able to quickly count them and move on. Meanwhile, I'll scout out a big, rotting log full of interesting hiding spots to add to my burgeoning brush pile in case any of them stick around.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Rafinesque's bat


The stark winter landscape looks like a Hockney painting--bright green wheat fields, dramatic orange sunsets against gray trees. When winter descends on deciduous woods, it means easy wildlife viewing. Bats have been really active around sunset this past week. In southeast Missouri, a region devoid of caves, bats live in hollow trees, abandoned homes and behind the peeling bark of old trees.

Three species have been recorded from this area: red, big brown and Rafinesque's big-eared. It's virtually impossible to tell which species of bat is flying around at dusk unless you're in the Ozarks watching a predetermined, no less spectacular display of clustering gray bats leaving a cave. In fact, if you have a bat in hand to determine species by its fur color and the shape of the tragus, a small part of the inner ear, the animal is probably not doing so well; it's either being rehabilitated, is very sick, or you have taken a bat from its roost spot, thereby gravely stressing its fragile system. Based on life history and habitat you can guess which bats are flying around, but the man who lent his name to the Rafinesque big-eared bat was obviously able to see one up close to determine its species. The Rafinesque's big-eared bat (Plecotus rafinesquii) hasn't been studied in Missouri, but studies in other parts of its range have proven that the populations are consistently uncommon. And consistently in literature Monsieur Rafinesque is described as uncommon.

Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1783-1840) was born in Constantinople but spent his childhood in Marseille, France, teaching himself Latin and botany. He was fluent in Latin by 12 and built himself an herbarium by the time he was 15. At 19 (1802), he moved to America where he became fascinated with the fishes of the eastern seaboard. He collected over 250 species new to science in the course of a few years. Rafinesque returned to Europe after a few years in Philadelphia. On his boat ride home, the boat capsized and in the wreck he lost over 60,000 plant and animal specimen he had collected throughout his life.

Having recovered from the rather serious blow to his scholarship, Rafinesque returned to America in 1817 to teach botany, French and Italian at Lexington, Kentucky's Transylvania University. He was ridiculed from the beginning of his professorship, being labeled an eccentric genius, a student of all the arts and a master of none. He missed classes, spent "too much time" with the University president's wife, wore rumpled clothes and had messy hair. As a founding member of the Lyceum of Natural History in Philadelphia, Rafinesque was a friend to Bentham and Audubon and was an "intellectual source" to Lewis and Clark. His organizational skills and keen eye to details encouraged him to rename over 2,000 plant and animal species, though only a few of the names are still in use.

Charles Darwin didn't write him off as an eccentric and acknowledged Rafinesque's anti-Linnaean classification system in the forward to his On the Origin of Species. A handful of notebooks (all in French, of course) from Rafinesque's time in Kentucky are at the Smithsonian, along with a beautiful collection of his fish drawings from the Ohio River. He is responsible for separating the white from the black crappie, even putting it in a different genus (Pomoxis) because of physical traits the earlier classification system didn't take into account. During Rafinesque's time in Kentucky, he also became interested in the Midsouth's Native American sites, identifying 148 different sites in Kentucky alone.

Despite his accomplishments and wide array of interests, Rafinesque was always considered an outcast while he was in America. While Audubon respected his vast knowledge and organizational skills, the discovery of the Rafinesque's big-eared bat caused Audubon a lot of anguish. In 1818, Rafinesque spent the night at Audubon's cottage in Henderson, Kentucky. The story holds that Rafinesque had his window open and a candle flickering in his room. Bats began to swarm into the room to eat the moths that were attracted to the candle. Rafinesque, naked, grabbed Audubon's Cremona violin and began violently swatting at the bats, trying to get one close enough to draw or collect as a specimen. Audubon heard the ruckus and rushed into the room. Seeing his prized violin destroyed, Audubon furiously grabbed the violin's bow and managed to kill one of the big-eared bats by swatting it to the wall. Audubon expected a mere apology from Rafinesque and instead got a "it's a new bat!" Audubon never forgave him. The features that separate the Rafinesque from the Townsend's big-eared bat are slight: the Rafinesque's has tufts of hair over the toes and white-tipped hair on the belly. There's a slight difference in the upper incisor teeth, as well.

Several books exist that outline his amazing contributions to science, including a recently published biography, A Voice in the American Wilderness, by Leonard Warren of the University of Kentucky Press. After his death, Rafinesque was buried in Philadelphia among his friends of the Lyceum. In 1924, a small group of botanists lobbied to have his remains placed at the entrance to the administrator's building at Transylvania University. The plaque above his resting place reads: "Honor to whom honor is overdue." The college grill is named after him and the week before Halloween is "Rafinesque Week" on campus.

In southeast Missouri, aside from his Rafinesque's bat, there's a Rafinesque violet and several members of the aster family designated with Raf. after the species, meaning that he reclassified them. His nomenclature is a lot easier to follow than earlier naturalists, thanks to his dedication to Latin and Greek. He named Lewis and Clark's white footed mouse Peromyscus leucopus, "small mouse with white feet." If only they were all that easy. After Rafinesque's death, his journals and field notes were sold as junk, so we'll never know his side of the Audubon violin story.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Fall woods





I took this series of pictures last week. Now most of the leaves are gone, but the pin oaks are still as green as they were in May. The past-its-prime ladies' tresses orchid(Spiranthes ovalis) represents a victory; there was only a literature record for this plant until fire prescription was added to the management regime. I counted no fewer than 200 individual plants in the section that was burned last March. Spiranthes is a big genus, with an orchid for every habitat--I've even seen one in the turf at Audubon Zoo.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Rapt attention


The Northern Harriers have been cruising the soybean fields since August. This spectacular bird who lends its name to a fighter jet, is notable for its flight pattern, which is best described as a "lazy glide" often no more than 3 feet off the ground. They inhabit marshes and fields and build their nests on the ground. To capture prey, they pounce to the ground, twisting their way down from their low-flying position. The harrier's face resembles an owl more than another hawk; the face feathers are arranged in a disk-like pattern to help the bird hear its prey--mostly small mammals and birds--rustling in the grass. They're an easy hawk to identify in the field not only because of the curious flight pattern but because of the large distinctive white patch just above the tail feathers.
According to published literature, the northern harrier is an uncommon breeder in Missouri. Destruction of prairie has taken its toll on harriers and many other grassland birds. The winter population in the southeast at least seems to be stable; harriers outnumber turkey vultures and red-tailed hawks combined. I used to get reprimanded while driving because I would instinctively pay more attention to hawks on telephone lines than traffic. But for the past few days I've been able to watch four harriers from upstairs as they deftly pluck all the mice from the recently-harvested soybean field. I have heard from several neighbors that after soybean harvest, every country mouse will find its way into the nearest building. Between the harriers, kestrals and coyotes, the mice haven't had much of a chance to even cross the road. For that, I am forever grateful to our winter residents.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

First frost


Fresh basil season is over. The first frost occurred a couple of nights ago and my ever-productive, never-failing basil plants are now big bushes of black, desiccated leaves. In the deep south, the first frost alters the sugars in collard and mustard greens, making them sweeter and easier to cook. Southerners who spend time in the woods associate first frost with the ripening of persimmons, but it's a disjunct association.

Persimmon trees, with their easily identifiable charcoal briquette-like bark (they remain one of the few trees I can identify in winter), are unjustly considered trash trees in southeast Missouri. Because raccoons and opossums eat persimmons more than people do, persimmon seeds are dispersed throughout the woods, on fencerows and in old fields. Persimmon trees are generally the first trees that show up in early successional woodlands. Leave an old field alone long enough and persimmon trees will shoot up above the goldenrods, asters and Johnson grass within the first year.

Diospyros virginiana, literally "fire colored fruit/wheat of the gods from Virginia," grows on average to 30-40 feet tall, but in southeast Missouri it averages 80-112 feet, sometimes towering over stately oaks and hickories. They are dioecious trees, which means they require male and female flowers to produce fruit. The fruit is 34% sugar, making it one of the sweetest native fruits in America. But bite into one before it's ripe and you'll never want to try one again. The astringency and bitterness of unripe persimmons can remind you of your younger sister rubbing deodorant on your braces during a sisterly fight.

The fruits ripen at the time when most animals are beginning to store fat for the winter. Unlike pawpaws, persimmons don't ripen all at once. On one tree, fruits can ripen as early as mid-September and as late as February. The lore that encourages waiting until the first frost is plain wrong. I waited until the after three successive nights of frost last year to pluck soft fruits from a laden tree only to be tricked again into a tongue-drying experience. Heavy frost damages the fruit, as does cooking the ripe pulp; heat brings back the astringency to ripe fruit. A lady in New Madrid makes excellent persimmon cookies. She waits until the fruits fall off the tree, often returning to the same tree for several days in a row to get the fruit before the animals do. She treats the persimmon pulp like pumpkin. While I don't think the fruit is pie-worthy, the cookies are great. Native Americans made a fruit "leather" out of persimmons; extract the pulp and spread it 1/4 inch thick over a log and let it dry (or put it on a cookie sheet in the oven with low heat for an hour). High in Vitamins C, A, E. Good source of fiber and trace minerals.

Native persimmons aren't available in produce aisles due to their fragility, but there are several Asian varieties that show up in select grocery stores in the fall. I don't think the Asian fruits are as fussy as the native ones, but being so far from a grocer, I'm going to try grabbing a few fruits before the raccoons get to them. The raccoons, with help from the opossums, managed to eat every single pawpaw in the county this year. I just want enough persimmons for a small batch of cookies and I'll throw the seeds to the fencerow.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Andiamo, Mets

So there's going to be a game 7 tomorrow night. I've loved the Mets since I was in New York. Since I was in high school, I've followed the White Sox. But when I lived in Brooklyn, you could take the F train from my Italian immigrant neighborhood to Shea Stadium, buy a ticket for 5$ and watch the Mets lose. It's a tricky situation now, where loyalty is with the Mets and if my friends in Jefferson City knew this I might be out of a job.

I'm not surrounded by sports fanatics of any type in southeast Missouri. You don't see Cardinals bumper stickers or even the honorary Dale Earnhardt "in memoriam" stickers on truck windows. High school football isn't a religion like it is in the south and I really don't know what the basketball season means down here. I'll be watching the "young, inexperienced" Blazers over internet satellite all winter.

The Showmakers visited me yesterday from Charleston. They come by about once a month when they make their "visiting" rounds to all the elderly folks on the road. They bring brainteaser toys that Mr. Showmaker makes in his wood shop or even little math puzzles, exercises in vector diagrams, to keep the old folks' brains busy. They remind me of my grandparents, always wearing their Sunday best to do their visiting. Mr. Showmaker wears these grand old ties in double Windsor knots and jingles change and keys in his pocket. Yesterday he wore a brand new Cardinals t-shirt that his son gave to him on top of his dress shirt. This was the first time I have seen any loyalty to a sports team since I have been down here, and Mr. Showmaker looked as uncomfortable as Al Gore in St. Louis in his starched t-shirt. Missouri voters rejected the proposal years ago that would require taxpayers to pay for the new Busch Stadium. To pay for the genuinely lovely new stadium, tickets to Cardinals games were really expensive during the season. Add to it the public desire to see a game in the new stadium and a good team, tickets to regular season home games were selling on EBay for $1,000, if they were available at all. My Brooklyn neighbors, most of whom came from Sicily after World War II, wrote letters to the Mets organization when they raised the cheap seats from $5 to $7.

Tomorrow night will be a big night in Queens. Even this week's New Yorker has a very 1930s illustration of a Mets player on the cover, while for the past few years they've featured the celebrated Yankees. Unlike my neighbors down here, I have a vague loyalty to the home state Cardinals, but for the sake of my neighbors in Brooklyn, I really hope the Mets win tomorrow night.

Friday, October 13, 2006

The Benge Route


From the National Park Service:
In 1838, the United States government forcibly removed more than 16,000 Cherokee Indian people from their homelands in Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Georgia, and sent them to Indian Territory (today known as Oklahoma).
The impact to the Cherokee was devastating. Hundreds of Cherokee died during their trip west, and thousands more perished from the consequences of relocation. This tragic chapter in American and Cherokee history became known as the Trail of Tears, and culminated the implementation of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which mandated the removal of all American Indian tribes east of the Mississippi River to lands in the West.


Before 2003, I think the average black bear knew more about the Trail of Tears than I did. I thought I had a great, balanced, liberal education. I took an 8 hour course on the French Revolution, I read a lot of Marx, I somehow ended up with a minor in Art History. How did the Trail of Tears, another U.S. government-sponsored expedition in ethnic cleansing, pass my radar screen without my typical outrage? More pathetic yet is that I learned more about the Treaty of New Echota from Sarah Vowell’s book of essays,Take the Cannoli, than I learned in years of structured education. In Take the Cannoli, the author and her sister follow the official Trail of Tears to their hometown of Talequah, Oklahoma. On the way, they stop at every commemorative marker, including, naturally, the one in Chattanooga where the trail started. The Chattanooga marker sits right in front of the public aquarium so that people can ponder it while listening to advertisements for the IMAX film. She stops at all the Trail of Tears State Parks (I think there are 4), including the one north of Cape Girardeau (park staff there are really devoted to their resource. Definitely worth a visit). All the while, Vowell deftly interjects her travelogue stories into the sad and sordid history of the forced removal.

The exodus of the Cherokee was unofficially divided into two camps, the forced and the "voluntary" removals. Aside from the official route that is now commemorated, there were other routes to the Indian Territory that passed through Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri and Arkansas. On October 1, 1838, a detachment of over 1,000 Cherokee led by John Benge departed Ft. Payne Alabama for the Indian Territory. Their route, later named the Benge Route, crossed state lines and ended in Arkansas and Oklahoma. They used a route south and west of the Northern Land Route to cross the Tennessee River. They passed through Paris, Tennessee, through Clinton, Kentucky, and then through Belmont, Missouri, now merely a shady fishing spot 5 miles from my house on the Mississippi River. Belmont was a thriving town in the 1830s and has a rich history related to the Civil War, which I’ll get into another time. But in 1838, when the Benge party crossed the Mississippi River from Columbus, Kentucky as part of the voluntary removal, Belmont was a large enough town that the local newspaper reported the Cherokee march through town. In fact, if it weren’t for small town newspaper records, modern day researchers wouldn’t know much at all about the Benge Route. The Arkansas Gazette, for example, reports that Cherokee camped at Smithville on December 12, 1838 and then went to Pokeville for wagon repairs on December 15. Without this kind of historical record, the group in charge of getting the Benge Route added to the National Historical Trail system would be up the proverbial creek. Land surveys, depressions in the road, oral history and private journals have also helped determine the exact route, just as they did the original Trail of Tears, the Old Spanish Trail and other nationally recognized trails. The Benge detachment finally arrived in Indian Territory in January 1839 and had the lowest attrition rate of any other detachment.

I recently attended a Vaughn family reunion in western Arkansas, an area that used to be the heart of Indian Territory. I traveled 6 hours with 2 goals in mind: to acquire as much verified family history as possible, and, well, to see my family. I had heard for years that my great grandmother was Cherokee and my great aunt was Naragansett but had not really seen any evidence of it. Lined up on a wall at the community center was a collection of photos of the Cherokee relatives (Allie Mixon, pictured). The Cherokee relatives were on the Benge Route, which is why the reunion was in western Arkansas rather than Talequah. I picked up a copy of one of the transcribed journals where an ancestor recounted the route--she describes passing over Crowley’s Ridge, over the Eleven Point River (at the present day USFS portage spot, Indian Ford), and through the Poteau Mountains. In someone’s attic is a collection of 40 years of journals from one of the Cherokee relatives, but no one can tell me exactly where this attic is.

The Indian Territory was initially advertised to the Cherokee as a great place to live. Articles from 1839 collected in a local historical society booklet describe Heavener, Arkansas and Poteau, Oklahoma as though they were the Elysian Fields: beautiful rivers, tillable farmland, an established grist mill and fine schools. Lots of research and documentation exists about the Trail of Tears and I’ll bet at least one dissertation has been written about the advertisement of Indian Territory to the tribes. Many relatives still live in that part of the country and the ones who left did so to work on railroads, a story that has certainly been repeated millions of times in America.

I was handed a lot of information during the reunion: one relative was labeled a “radical” and “socialist” in local newspapers. The Civil War soldier I had heard about was actually a deserter from the Confederate Army. We have his journals where he describes not only years on the run from the Texas Cavalry but how his “sympathie was with the union.” On one branch of the family tree is a relative who bought a land claim in the 1860s right around here in the area renamed “Sunken Timbers.” The earthquake-shattered land was considered worthless and under the Swamp Act of 1850, lots were sold for 1$/acre. Thanks to all the fires that consumed various incarnations of the county courthouse, most original land grants for Mississippi and New Madrid Counties don’t exist anymore. I read in family journals that shortly after Warren Vaughn bought the land at Sunken Timbers, he headed west. I don’t know how long he stayed or his exact reason for leaving the area. It’s a difficult place to live, even when it was a pristine wilderness. While I have a few things to accomplish professionally, I think I’ll follow the lead of my ancestors. I really should be able to live down here for at least a year and I’m not sure where I’ll go next, but it won’t be within the township and it won’t be Arkansas.

Reports in the Vaughn family history reminded me of several things: 1. Everyone has an interesting story. 2. When your grandfather is visiting you in the hospital day after day when you are four, there are more interesting questions you should ask than what he thinks about Sesame Street. 3. Keep a journal. I implore you, readers, all three of you, that regardless of how mundane you think your lives may be, journals are amazing records, even if they are not well-written.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Monarchy in southeastern Missouri


They must have come in the cover of night. Sunday afternoon, the asters and goldenrods were covered in checkered skippers and cloudy sulphurs--both smaller, pale-colored butterflies who have been around all summer. By Monday morning, there were no fewer than 40 monarchs floating outside the window and mobbing the tiny patch of goldenrod next to my office door. The annual monarch migration is underway in southeast Missouri and it's nothing less than spectacular. For two days I have felt like Ferdinand the Bull, trying to get work done but continuously distracted by the bright colors flying around.

East of the Rocky Mountains, the monarch (Danaus plexippus) follows a migratory path to a forested sanctuary in Michoacan, Mexico. Eight other species of butterfly make annual migrations, including the lovely Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui), but they only have a lifespan of one week and don't have a directional preference during their migration. The other migratory species all fly in a general southern direction to stay ahead of the frost line but with no real wintering grounds in mind. Only the monarch lives 7 months to see a full migration in its lifetime. While most monarchs live on average 2 months, the ones that make the round-trip migration live longer than any other butterfly. The migrating generation doesn't reproduce until it leaves the mountains in Mexico and finds an area that has milkweed growing in it to lay its eggs.

Researchers still have a lot of questions about the monarch migration. How do successive generations "know" to return to a single wintering spot in the highlands of Mexico? In the past few years, researchers have offered tagging kits to butterfly enthusiasts, which include little stickers with numbers and codes to be affixed to the delicate wings of monarchs. Reports of tagged monarchs have resulted in a lot of interesting information regarding the migration, but not enough information to determine exactly how they make the annual migration.

Monarchs have had a hard time the past few years. Continuous drought in the upper Midwest has interrupted the bloom cycles of the host plant, milkweed (Asclepias sp.), making it harder for the butterflies to find it. Just about every habitat has a milkweed associated with it. There's the delicate swamp milkweed (A. perennis) that my boss simply adores, there's one that grows on glades (A. verticillata), there are several prairie species and the ones that show up in ditches throughout the Midwest. In the Deep South, the natural habitat has been so greatly degraded that the only milkweed that really performs well is an introduced Brazilian species, A. curassavica. The drought has reduced almost all of the watering and nectar sources for monarchs, including the flowering milkweeds. If it's not drought impacting the habitat, it's herbicide treatment of preferred weedy areas. The weedy wildflowers and grasses are a proverbial goldmine to monarchs and most other butterflies. Finally, in Mexico, illegal deforestation of oyamel fir trees has impacted the wintering monarch population. The butterflies depend on the foliage of these trees to protect them on cold and windy nights. Recent reforestation projects in the area have proven successful and the 2005-06 populations are healthier than the 2003-04 populations. The current, exceptional drought in the Midwest, Texas and Mexico could have a serious impact on the monarchs this fall. The recent rains in southeast Missouri, however, have caused a robust bloom of asters and goldenrods and certainly given the butterflies lots of room to mine for minerals in pools of mud.

There aren't a lot of weedy areas left in southeast Missouri; even turnrows are sprayed with RoundUp down here. I let my yard grow up with "weeds," of course, much to the dismay of colleagues. I recently helped a friend with a butterfly monitoring program and realized that even though the survey area was an exquisite forest on the Mississippi River, the best butterfly habitat was found along the edges of the forest where thistles and goldenrods bloomed. The patch of woods I work in is rich with asters and goldenrods. Both of these are plants a lot of people mow over, treat with herbicides or just ignore. Their prolific populations are essential to the migrating monarchs. There are over ten species of asters and four species of goldenrods native to southeast Missouri. This diversity might account for the high numbers of monarchs in the area right now; I honestly haven't seen this many since I left New Orleans, a town rich with weedy lots and butterfly gardens. Almost everyone in New Orleans had at least a handful of nectar sources growing in their yards. The tropical climate down there allows for a lot of wildflowers, zinnias and butterfly host plants.

While I am not getting a lot of work done in the woods because the monarchs and migratory birds are so distracting, I'm enjoying seeing how the butterflies relish the plants most people hate. Funny, that during the monarch migration the weedy, prolific bloomers are at their peak. How that intricate web of nature seems to work...