Wednesday, November 29, 2006


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.