Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A few more from Speak Out!

I couldn't resist. From the past few weeks in Speak Out!, the column in Cape Girardeau's Southeast Missourian that prints the concerns of citizens, however personal their gripes might be. And if you don't want to read any of them, I urge you to read the first and the last, both completely out of left field and kind of strange:
A better place
Ice storms in Missouri have knocked out power to thousands of homes and businesses. Many people are sleeping in shelters to keep warm. I don't hear any stories on about widespread looting in the streets or assaults in the shelters. Maybe Missourians are just better people. After all, we did have two kidnap victims rescued in Kirkwood.
Season of lights
If Christmas is from Dec. 25 to Jan. 6, Christmas lights should only be up during that time. But since people put their lights up the day after Thanksgiving, a month before the Christmas season, it is only fair that Christmas lights come down Dec. 26. Fair is fair.
Parking-lot lessons
APPARENTLY YOU can learn from social lessons in parking lots at retail stores. When I was at a store today, I learned how lazy people can be. There were quite a few carts that were not returned to the nearest cart-return center, and there were tons of people driving around looking for the nearest parking space when they could have parked farther away and completed their shopping. No wonder the French find us despicable.
Deflected siren
HAS ANYONE noticed the weather warning siren on East Jackson Boulevard? Isn't it aimed at a billboard? Will that billboard deflect the sound?
Music memories
I WAS disappointed with the Grammys program. Whatever happened to the days when we had premiere acts like Wilson Phillips, Michael Bolton and Color Me Bad?
Sirens in Cape
I AM still waiting for storm sirens in Cape Girardeau, rotating or not. I don't even care if they are fixed facing billboards.
Heating up
I HAVE a son who overheats and he rarely wears a coat. A hat would be completely out of the question for him. He rarely gets sick. Our bodies regulate differently.

Lunar eclipse

On March 3rd, a lunar eclipse will be visible to the eastern half of the United States. The moon will enter the penumbra at 3:16 EST and will leave the penumbra at 9:25 EST.
The Greeks and Romans considered lunar and solar eclipses as portents; the story of Nicias' final defeat in Sicily is heavily dependent on the idea of the ominous eclipse. Thuycidides and others in the 5th century understood that lunar eclipses only take place during a full moon and several hundred years later Ptolemy provided precise methods for predicting the time of not only lunar, but solar eclipses as well. The dates of many historical events are better known due to the mention of eclipses (and because of this and archeological records, we'll all learn not to doubt Herodotus). It became customary in the 5th century to associate historical events to the occurrence of lunar eclipses; their prediction (rather anachronistically) was associated with past great thinkers like Thales.

I don't think anyone still believes in portents anymore, but the eclipse will occur at the same time as a scheduled ruling on the USACE's New Madrid-St. John's Bayou Floodway Project. The project has been tied up in the courts for months now; the Environmental Defense Fund has argued that the project's mitigation, which will involve the reestablishment of 8,000 acres of bottomland hardwood forests, meander scrolls and swamps to southeast Missouri, is not sufficient for spawning fish populations. The present ditch system, which the EDF aims to protect, supports a healthy population of contaminated rough game fish who live in polluted waters which have drained from fields. With the mitigation project in place, Mississippi River water will be pumped into an 8,000 acre area twice a year, somewhat replicating the river's natural flood cycle. Not only will rough game fish be healthier in this environment, but non-game species like cypress minnows, shortnose gar, and even the liminal alligator gar stand to benefit from the increase in available habitat.

Paleographers maintain that Odysseus' slaying of Penelope's suitors upon his return home correspond to a datable lunar eclipse. As a portent for good things to come, perhaps March 3rd's event bodes well for the mitigation project. Or maybe it's just an eclipse we can go out and watch on my mother's 65th birthday.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Rat tailed maggots

Who thought Nature could improve on a maggot? Well, she did. Rat tailed maggots are the aquatic larvae of syrphid flies who use a long posterior extension as a breathing apparatus. The insect larva is a mere 20 mm long, on average, but the "tail," a lot like a snorkel, can extend 15 cm. Small hydrophobic hairs are located at the end of the breathing tube which allow the insect to hang on to the surface of the water while it's breathing and prevent water from coming into the tube, allowing for proper gas exchange.

There are almost 100 species of syrphids worldwide. The harmless flies that resemble bees and wasps can be found hovering over flowers in every kind of habitat. Large numbers of their larval forms congregate in any accumulation of standing water. They're under every log I turn over, in every rainwater pool, in the swamp, in the bayou. The maggots are everywhere. They can live in clean water yet thrive in highly polluted water like septic tanks and sewerage lagoons. They feed on organic matter like decomposing leaves and animal feces and often appear in livestock lots where they can contaminate the water. In Cape Town, South Africa, the drinking water supply was briefly compromised with rat tailed maggots, whose presence caused several people to contract a gastrointestinal disorder called myiasis.

The skin of the rat tailed maggot is impermeable to insecticides and herbicides, which allows them to live in contaminated waters. They do not necessarily indicate poor water quality. All year they share rainwater pools with isopods, small crawfish, whirligig beetles and an amphipod commonly called a "scud," other invertebrates that are not as tolerant of pollution as the maggot. None of the invertebrates present, however, indicate pristine waters. Missouri's streams and rivers are regularly monitored by scores of volunteers who fan out across the state looking for the presence of invertebrate water quality indicators. High quality streams have caddis flies, stoneflies and water pennies in them. Unfortunately, the invertebrate indicators don't apply to swamps and sediment-laden backwater ditches, so I'm creating a list of critters to pass on to the other swampwater volunteers. The curious rat tailed maggot is included in the list.

I have some concerns about the park's water quality. Pesticide-filled ditches bisect the adjacent fields, run into the park, and distribute water laden with farm chemicals into the forest. My boss, Chief, graciously paid for an extensive water quality test that will detect 25 kinds of pesticides and mercury compounds that may be present in the park's waters; I've been summoned to Jefferson City to discuss the results (which hopefully won't be as bad as everyone suspects). Concerns were raised a few years ago when a state agency came to the park looking for salamanders in rainwater pools. No salamanders were found and various culprits were considered: paucity of adjacent upland habitat, pesticides in the soils and waters, maybe even mercury in the rainwater from Ohio Valley coal factories. While I complained about only finding high numbers of smallmouths last week, at least I found something other than the maggots.

Thursday, February 22, 2007


There's a nice serenity to the winter landscape. Maybe it's because trucks aren't rumbling by with crops, or that the distractions of growing plants aren't there. I've had an appreciative eye for non-plants lately, including these charming 1930s clapboard structures that are scattered around the county. Most of the older buildings are vacant, but a couple of homes and churches are still being used.

Today I started my search for adult mole salamanders by carefully lifting and replacing over 100 logs. I found two, but didn't have the camera with me. When I returned to the woods with the camera, I couldn't remember which logs they were under. (It continues to amaze me that I can actually lose myself in a mere 1,026 acres of trees.) Instead I found no fewer than 28 smallmouth salamanders. It was still an exciting day.

Pictures included are of a small Baptist Church, a vacant general store across the road, a large stand of little bluestem at an archeological site, two somewhat chilly amphibians sharing a log together (look closely for the frog), and a gravid smallmouth salamander.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Wetland engineers

I first noticed the sprawling beaver den last December. It was constructed in the only part of the park that had any water, the historical deep swamp (elev. 289'), and it was doing a fine job of holding water when the rest of the park was dry. Beavers were active in the swamp all summer and their dens likely serve as a home to the otters who continue to rip apart turtles on the banks of the lake. Since September, water levels have remained high throughout the park; water is standing even in the canebrakes, the areas with the highest elevation (292'). Beaver activity has increased dramatically the past few weeks and the evidence of their work is seen everywhere in the park.

During the autumn months, beavers were selectively gnawing on green ash trees. Every day I would see a stately ash fall and then summarily stripped of its bark. For the past three months, the beavers have moved into the virgin forest, an area that has not seen persistent standing water since before the drainage ditches were installed in the 1930s. Beavers are taking down the forest's utterly enormous willow trees in the course of two or three nights. When the drainage ditches were initially built, forest composition rapidly changed: willows sprang up in an area that was once a pond of sedges and cypress trees. Green ash and maples grew up in an area that was once dominated by pumpkin ash and cypress trees. The existing cypress trees are roughly 80 to 100 years old and they are slowly dying off. Without water in the wet forest, cypresses cannot grow. Without light to the forest floor, cypresses cannot regenerate. A 1995 survey revealed that cypress trees regenerated for the last time 80 years ago, during that initial draining of the historical Grassy Pond. The water levels of the pond fluctuated rapidly and caused a huge population to grow. Since the pond has been completely drained, the forest has been drying out and filling up with maples, hackberries, green ash and willows. I found young (4-5 years old) cypress trees in only one spot: exactly where the beavers had been active 5 years ago. Cypress trees only regenerate where breaks in the forest canopy and dynamic hydrology occur. Beavers were singlehandedly responsible for the canopy breaks that allowed the growth of 22 new cypresses in the wet bottomland forest. They were also responsible for building dens that held water long enough for the water-dependent trees to survive their first 4 growing seasons. 22 cypresses won't regenerate a forest, but it's a start. With the recent beaver activity, the willow and ash-dominated forest is being cleared to make way for new cypress trees and rich understory production.

The large den in the swamp has caused water to pool for many months now. It was explained to me last spring that the water distribution in the park is contingent on beaver populations and their distribution. Unfortunately, beavers aren't only in the swamp and the bottomland forest. They are also building dens in the elaborate ditching system throughout the county, causing persistent flooding of already saturated fields. A state agency is trapping beavers all over the county to help with the drainage of southeast Missouri, but they're not trapping in the park. No farmer wants a standing lake where corn should be growing, especially with corn prices as high as they are.

Beaver breeding is currently underway. A single litter consists of 1 to 8 animals, but most often 3 or 4. Young beavers are able to swim immediately but they often don't come out of the den until they are 1 month old. They live with their parents for 2 years and leave the den voluntarily, establishing new colonies on the fringes of the existing one. The park's beavers are providing such a great service that I hope new colonies stay well within the park's boundaries, where their natural habits are greatly appreciated.

Lenten Obligation

Happy Mardi Gras, y'all!
Last night at Cape Girardeau's nice grocery store, I was reminded that the Catholic community in the city is alive and well. The store is offering Lenten specials on seafood and even had King Cakes (with the baby shamefully placed on the outside of the cake) for sale in the bakery section. This brings me to ask the reader: What should I give up for Lent? I'm not Catholic but was brought up Episcopalian, the other church that honors Lent with nice soup lunches and dreary music. I haven't been to a church in years, probably since the last Bach around the Clock concert in 2003. So I'm not a religious person anymore but I still observe Lent, maybe to test my will power more than anything else. I gave up chocolate and ice cream every year as a child, but I don't eat either enough to justify giving it up. I don't smoke, eat junk food, participate in illegal activities, or lead a sedentary lifestyle, so I'm kind of stumped this year and I'm open to suggestions.

Thank you to everyone who gave me suggestions on what to give up. Among the suggestions: caffeine, sleeping late, neglecting Molly. Robbie suggested picking up a good habit rather than giving up a luxury, and my favorite response was from Jack, who runs a mill in Bollinger Co.: "Don't you think you've given up enough just by living here?"

Friday, February 16, 2007

Spring comes to the Deep South

I made an impromptu visit to Louisiana this week and found these blooming in my mother's yard. The narcissi have been known to bloom as early as January, but the tulip tree and the daffodils usually bloom around Easter. We haven't even celebrated Mardi Gras yet. The daffodils are blooming three weeks earlier than last year and a full month before they bloomed in 1999. Meanwhile, southeast Missouri is going to see several inches of snow and wind gusts of 30 mph tomorrow. My hyacinths aren't even above the ground yet.

I learned three important facts while in Louisiana:
1. Stroke victims at West Monroe's St. Francis Hospital are fed fried catfish, chicken fried steak and bread pudding with rum sauce, the exact foods that put them there in the first place.
2. Shreveport's "best restaurant," Olive Street Bistro (est. 1990), is nothing short of terrible. And the service is worse. Don's Seafood (est. 1934), the place where people used to wear double windsor knots and order rye highballs, remains great.
3. The Louisiana legislature passed a rather progressive law prohibiting smoking in any establishment that serves food. I wonder how many bars in New Orleans are going to stop serving cheese fries.

The Great Backyard Bird Count

Each year on President's Day weekend, Cornell sponsors a countrywide bird survey. Volunteers from all over North America are encouraged to get out in their proverbial or literal backyards to count the birds they see. Findings are posted on an easily navigable website; a virtual thumbtack representing the surveyed area is added to the map each time a survey is reported. By the end of the holiday weekend, organizers have a good snapshot of where birds are wintering. The survey can take as long as 15 minutes or all weekend. Even if you only have cardinals and bluejays in your urban park, the folks at Cornell want to know. So, if you can, get outside (or near a window) and count the birds.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Calling all frogs

For the past 10 years, the USGS has organized state agencies, non-profit conservation groups and dedicated enthusiasts to monitor breeding frogs to help track population changes. Participants in the North American Amphibian Monitoring Program drive a ten mile route in every corner of the eastern United States three times a year to listen to frogs and record their findings. Several states, including Missouri, previously had their own state agency-specific method of tracking frogs, but the protocol differed from state to state and true population counts were negatively impacted by the differing monitoring protocols: some states would report "stable" populations that would be considered "unstable" by another state. With global amphibian populations currently on the decline and drastic population changes looming in the near future, most states have finally adopted the federal monitoring standard so that now almost every state is on the same proverbial page.

The monitoring protocol is easy to follow: participants drive a pre-determined route, pull over when they approach standing water or when they hear frogs calling, and record what they hear. Individual frogs and choruses are recorded with a series of codes representing population density. It's an easy method that takes about 1 hour to complete. It's hard to hear every calling frog, especially when trucks rumble by, so I intend to make audio recordings at my stops this year. Laughing leopard frogs make these low frequency growls that can't be heard immediately and spring peepers sound a lot like Illinois chorus frogs.

Most states have certain Species of Conservation Concern, animals whose numbers are extremely low or dropping, and they are of particular interest to state and federal organizers. In southeast Missouri we have two SCCs: the Eastern spadefoot (whose call sounds like a baby crying) and the Illinois chorus frog (ICF), a frog who is responsible for keeping boll weevil populations in check. Unfortunately, since the ICF's food source happens to be in and around cotton fields, most of their breeding habitat is so polluted with pesticides that their numbers continue to dwindle. In the Natural Heritage Database, ICFs hold the "threatened" slot just below the state endangered Ozark hellbender, another amphibian whose numbers are abysmally low due to human interactions. In the case of the hellbender, however, it has nothing to do with pesticides, but we dump millions of voracious, grain-fed trout fingerlings into their breeding habitat for our recreational purposes.

The National Wildlife Federation sponsors a similar frog monitoring program, FrogWatch, which is geared towards anyone who is interested in "adopting" a breeding pool for monitoring purposes. Community gardens, landowners with fishless ponds, schools and anyone who might live near a ditch with calling frogs have joined FrogWatch. The program touts thousands of volunteers who monitor thousands of breeding pools throughout the country. There is no driving route associated with FrogWatch and you don't have to take a test before you begin monitoring, though it's encouraged. FrogWatch is a free program and has been invaluable to amphibian researchers at NWF. NAAMP requires that participants pass a frog call test before they can start monitoring and because I haven't heard southeast Missouri's frogs in almost a year, the house has been filled with the dulcet sounds of spring, interrupted by a severe narrator: "Plains leopard frog...Gray treefrog...Northern crawfish frog..."

I drove my NAAMP route a few weeks ago to see where it took me. I don't know the county roads, most of the directive signs have been shot out and it's a lot easier to get around down here if you know exactly where you're going. The route is extremely pauperate, lacking suitable amphibian breeding habitat. My route takes me past a lot of sedimented ditches, some deep water holes that have been carved out to help keep the rainwater off the fields and some old river meanders that held water before the 1930s ditching projects began. I drive through one batture in a conservation area on the Mississippi River that should have high species richness, but I won't know until March.

The NAAMP driving routes are randomly designed based on topographical maps; the organizers in Washington, D.C. chose my route because they saw depressions that should (or at one time did) represent standing water. I don't think they have any clue what kind or quality of water we have down here. Aerial pictures of the area show where the lakes, rivers and sloughs used to be and, if the bottom ever falls out of the farming industry, will be again with help from the USACE.

Neal, the wetlands biologist from the Christmas Bird Count, used to run my NAAMP route. He told me which landowners will yell at you if you park in front of their house. He told me where I could find both state listed threatened animals (a single ditch in a cotton field). He told me not to expect to hear healthy populations of anything but the pollution-tolerant green frogs. While southeast Missouri has the highest rainfall records in the state and a climate that more closely represents the Coastal Plain than anywhere else in the Midwest, this region of the state has the lowest amphibian species diversity in Missouri. The Ozark Highlands harbor 22 frog and toad species. Southeast Missouri has a mere 15 species. Compare this to Louisiana's 42 species, most of whose habitat requirements were here presettlement and it's easy to see that there is a problem down here.

The timber harvest and conversion of land to agriculture wiped out several species that should be thriving here. Just across the border in Arkansas, NAAMP participants will hear pig frogs, bird-voiced treefrogs, squirrel treefrogs and other southeastern United States species. In southeast Missouri, we have healthy populations of green treefrogs (pictured in the banner), lots of Fowler's toads (who resemble dwarf American toads) and plenty green and bullfrogs. I only have to know 15 species for the monitoring program, so I should have no problem taking the frog call test (which is available to the public under the tab "Public Quiz". You can also listen to all the frogs in your state through the same link.) It's a shame I don't have to learn more than what I already know. I won't hear wood frogs or even spring peepers down here, much less bird-voiced treefrogs whose known range is cypress swamps of the embayment. If the cotton farmers aren't careful, the NAAMP participant who takes over my route in the next year will only have to learn 13 calls.