Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Swamp Privet

Each spring, swamps of the southeastern U.S. are awash in the prolific, fragrant yellow flowers of the swamp privet. A member of the olive family, swamp privet is the first shrub to bloom in swampy wetlands. The simple flowers are long gone, but they've been replaced with deep purple fruits that fall into the swamp with the slightest touch, providing nourishment to waterfowl and fish.

Due to the drought, the privets never produced fruit last year. This year, swamp privets have had wet feet since September and the plants are loaded. Wood ducks and mallards in particular appreciate the long, fleshy drupes of the shrubs, as well as the cover provided by the plant's low branches. Catfish, too, eat swamp privet fruit; in fact, seeds eaten by catfish are capable of germinating. While common in South America, this is the first example in North America of a fish dispersing seeds. It implies a direct dependence between aquatic and terrestrial communities. These subtle interdependences give important implications for the management of bottomland hardwood systems.

In a short sighted move on the part of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, 4,000 acres of swamp privet-buttonbush swamp outside of Monroe, Louisiana are being cleared in an effort to make "more habitat" for waterfowl. Lakes free of vegetation are the ultimate goal in this exercise, which will utterly destroy the swamp, the very habitat waterfowl need. The backwards management of natural communities throughout Louisiana makes me grateful to be working in Missouri.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Rachel Carson

Dust off your copy of Silent Spring this week. Yesterday marked Rachel Carson's 100th birthday. Her best selling book (published first in The New Yorker) gave rise to the modern environmental movement, which ultimately led to the creation of the EPA, the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, as well as the Federal Endangered Species Act. With the current administration's all too common practice of gutting environmental policies, one must wonder what Carson would say today. It's likely she would have found the president's anti-environmental stance shocking, but having worked for the federal government early in life, she probably would not have been too surprised.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Afternoon at River Ridge

Once warm weather arrives, Jerry, the owner of River Ridge, hires musicians to play for diners every Saturday and Sunday afternoon. The restaurant features special menu items like havarti croque monsieurs, quiche Lorraine and (really great) bananas Foster on weekends as an added draw. It doesn't take a lot to send me driving to the ridgetop winery; a Cajun band from Ste. Genevieve and Joanie's red beans and rice was all it took on Saturday afternoon.

Lucky is Jerry's dog. He's usually well-mannered, stopping by your table for a quick pat. He never barks, and he generally leaves guests alone. I committed an unlucky error on Saturday. Knowing Molly's penchant for sausage, I fed Lucky the sausage from my red beans and rice. He wanted more, which I didn't have, and he started barking. He walked from table to table, barking at all the winery's guests. I created a monster.

I hadn't been up there since before April's hard frost. Keller, Jerry's right hand man, announced that they lost 60% of their grapes for this year's harvest. Keller's upbeat and fully expects the remaining 40% to produce the company's best wine ever. Their 2004 vintage is a hard one to beat, but we'll see....

Wildflowers of moist woods

One of the downsides to hanging out with botanists is the constant reminder of the botanist's value system. Many serious plant enthusiasts I know ignore common plants, despite the plants' natural history and prevalence in the landscape. Values are placed on plants based on rarity: a tiny, 2 cm. tall federally endangered bulrush will be the highlight of a botany outing even after the group plowed quickly through a valley full of showy tickseeds, bluestems and liatris. I know a lot of birders who have value systems, too. A wood thrush singing it's mellifluous song in plain view will be dismissed in lieu of a worm eating warbler's chip note. I'm the sucker who stops for the wood thrush before rushing after the warbler.

Appreciation for the natural world is manifest in deeply personal and complex ways which should not be judged. Nevertheless, I personally try not to be dismissive of the common plants and animals, despite how prolific they are. They're just as important to biodiversity as many uncommon and rare plants. The wildflowers below can be found not only throughout Missouri in moist woods, but in most of the eastern U.S. None of them are rare, threatened or endangered, but all are part of the matrix of the bottomland hardwood forest, they're all in bloom now and they'll continue provide nectar and seeds to insects and birds through July.

Wild petunia (Ruellia strepens) can be found in damp woods in almost every state east of the Rockies. It belongs to a large genus that includes over 150 species, most bearing the same delicate purple flower. Named after French herbalist and physician to Francois I, Jean de la Ruelle, ruellia is not a true petunia but an acanthus. The family Acanthaceae includes literally hundreds of showy South American plants. Petunias are actually members of the nightshade family, like tomatoes and eggplants.

Touch the inflated seedpod of jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), and it explodes, sending seeds everywhere. This delicate, fleshy wildflower tends to grow alongside stinging nettle (the host plant to red admiral butterflies), a plant covered in small toxic hairs that cause rather intense itching when it makes skin contact (I wear jeans all summer because of the prolific stinging nettle populations). The juice of jewelweed stops the itching caused by stinging nettle. I find it unfathomable how often this theory is tested by teenagers in the park.

Louisiana's premier naturalist, Caroline Dorman, once pondered over lizard's tail, "it's a mystery why anyone would give a horrid name to such a pretty plant." Granted, if you like lizards, the name isn't so horrid. Nevertheless, this plant is covering the forest floor, which means that there has been sufficient water to support its population this year. It's a good indicator plant of wetland status: even though the forest's water is beginning to evaporate, the clumps of lizard's tail show you where water was earlier this month. Lizard's tail (Saururus cernuus) has been especially favored by tiger swallowtails lately; it will continue to bloom well into July.

Water primrose (Ludwigia peploides) is a common plant throughout Missouri, but this year's plants represent the first population for the park in many years. This delicate yellow flower is growing for the first time since the 1980s in thick mats along the edges of the swamp. There hasn't been enough water during the spring to support it for many years. Water primrose has long stems that drift on the water's surface and "air roots," spongy, floating structures that absorb gases from the air. Snout butterflies hover in rather large groups around the floating flowers, feeding on nectar and available mud.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Desert island amphibian

It's a question that's asked at least once a day everywhere in America: If you were stranded on a desert island and could have only one species of amphibian sharing the island, which would you choose? I have two: Gulf Coast toad and green treefrog. They both inhabited my community garden in New Orleans (where both pictures were taken), they always called their dulcet tones when I was camping down south, and the toad is a voracious eater of the slug, a garden nemesis. Southeast Missouri doesn't harbor populations of Gulf Coast toads, but green treefrogs are common amphibians around the few remaining swamps in the area. Swamp drainage and habitat destruction has likely impacted their populations, but no amphibian surveys were conducted before the drainage projects began, so no one really knows for sure.

Southeast Missouri represents the northwestern limit of the green treefrog's range. They are the most common treefrog in the southeast U.S. and their delightful choruses can be heard from the western side of Crowley's Ridge to southern Illinois, then south throughout the embayment. Unlike last spring, the park's swamp is full of water this year. Green treefrogs, who depend on permanent water with emergent and floating vegetation for breeding, began chorusing in April, a whole month earlier than last year. Standing on the front porch at night, you can hear their earnest "quank quank" from two miles away. Green treefrogs generally call from late May through July with egglaying taking place in June or July. Females lay between 500 and 1,000 eggs which they attach to emergent or floating vegetation like sturdy sedges and cattails.

In the late 1970s, a catfish farmer from the Ozarks introduced a population of green treefrogs to his heated pond in Camden Co. A small population persists, but seems to be confined to the heated pond. Amphibian enthusiasts in Camden Co. regularly mistake the green phase of the common gray treefrog for the green treefrog. Unlike the gray treefrog, green treefrogs have yellow spots on the back and a white or yellow stripe that extends from the lip down the side; the stripe isn't present in all animals and populations in different locations have diverse stripes. A study in southern Mississippi several years ago tracked populations based on the stripe: animals in southern Alabama had clean white stripes, while certain animals in Louisiana had yellow stripes. At Fort Pickens National Park in Florida, the population lacked the stripe altogether.

Last week, when I asked a table of colleagues what their desert island amphibian would be, some answered bullfrogs because they provide a food source. Others said Ozark hellbenders because the animals only live in fast, clean Ozark streams, so the presence of the Ozark hellbender would mean the desert island would have an Ozark stream. I stuck with green treefrogs for impractical reasons. I like the sound of their chorus, they hang out under porchlights at night, and, frankly, they're cute. Next question: desert island reptile. I choose three toed box turtle and American alligator, and I wouldn't eat either of them.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Last Child in the Woods

When I'm flung all over the state for work purposes, I reward myself on the trip home with a hike in Missouri's vast wilderness, Hawn State Park. I can literally lose myself in the far reaches of the park, lulled into false security by the thick stands of whispering pines which offer all the comforts of my college-era landscape. I fled my thesis in pine forests. I cut my teeth on Louisiana's natural history in pine forests. I spent afternoons identifying trees, skinks, and wildflowers while eating sandwiches with my dearest friend, Nathan, in pine forests. When I want to feel comforted, I want to go home. So I go to Hawn.

I don't go to parks on weekends. While I think I need human contact and social interaction, I don't want it when I'm in the woods. Today's visit was unlike any other: I followed an igneous creekbed for about a mile and stumbled across another person, a 7 year old boy. He was looking not only for the same solitude I was looking for, but for crayfish.

The boy was crouched in the creek, jeans soaking wet, knees covered in mud. He asked me if I had ever seen a crayfish. Had I seen the one had just caught? I had actually only seen it in books. He asked if I wanted to help him find more. He didn't want them for bait, he didn't want to take them home to an aquarium, he just wanted to see what he could find. Naturally, I joined him. We flipped a few rocks, caught a few more crayfish, talked about how cool they are, and then let them go. It dawned on me as I was leaving him to his afternoon that I literally could not remember the last time I saw a kid in the woods without parental supervision, doing whatever he wanted to do.

Richard Louv's new book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, describes a crisis. American children are suffering from emotionally crippling mental and physical disorders because they're not given the chance to play outside in nature anymore. Studies have shown that overscheduled children spend their precious "free time" watching television (on average, over 1,300 hours a year) or playing on the computer. Children spend twenty four hours a year playing outside in unstructured activities. Now, Louv says, children are suffering from a nature deficiency and it's manifesting itself in epidemic proportions of childhood allergies, depression and unnameable fears. Because today's children lack important emotional connections to the natural world, they will be unable to make ecologically responsible choices as they mature.

Oddly enough, Louv points out that children who live in rural America suffer from this deficiency more than kids in urban areas. Rural kids are no longer exposed to family farming and turn to satellite television before going out into wild places. A study by a state conservation agency discovered that 65% of children in rural Central Missouri, an area rich in creeks, streams, and other natural resources, have never been fishing. 95% of children in St. Louis and Kansas City go fishing at least once a year.

Some argue that kids spend plenty of time outside playing sports. A recent study shows that while green spaces provide some healthy benefits, areas rich in biodiversity provide exponentially more benefits. The higher the biodiversity, the healthier the environment and its impacts. The 7 year old I flipped rocks with today is probably feeling pretty good tonight; Hawn is considered one of Missouri's most biologically diverse landscapes with a plant list over 400 species long.

Many children learn about nature from television and likely know more about South American rainforests than their own backyard. Last summer, I pointed out a yellow bellied water snake on a log to a 4th grader. She asked if we had anacondas or boa constrictors in the park. When I told her no, but we have 6 other kinds of snakes including the one right in front of us, she kept walking, not even glancing at the water snake. For every kid who leaves his parents at the campground to look for crayfish, there's one who refuses to enter the woods because his parents told him there were monsters in the trees. It's the responsibility of the parents to make sure children get outside to participate in nature, not just activities that end in -ball.

Louv ends his book on a positive note. Unlike incurable disease or global warming, where problems are complex and solutions are difficult to find, nature deficit disorder can be easily cured. The problem has been identified, the solution is simple and well within our grasp. Let kids explore nature like our generation did. Let them build forts out of cedar branches, flip logs looking for amphibians, let them get back to nature. It doesn't really matter if they get dirty.

I didn't sleep well these past few days and my diet has been dreck since Tuesday, but I left Hawn revitalized. I wanted to return to the rich bottomland forest, to hear green treefrogs and screech owls. I left the solitude of the pine forests, the place I find warmth and comfort, eager to get back to my own wild woods.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Because several of you have asked for it, I'm including pictures from the garden in this post. My row of Swiss chard ("Bright Lights") is ready for harvest. I added some to burritoes a few nights ago; two fistfuls reduced to a tablespoon when steamed. The deliciously sweet sugar snap peas ("Wando" variety) will be ready when I get back from the Ozarks. My heirloom San Marzano tomatoes are chugging right along, next to volunteer plants from last year's Supersweet 100s.

The reforestation unit that runs parallel to the bayou in the backyard is established (each flag marks a tree, shrub or vine). About 90% of the trees and shrubs have leafed out, including most of the 25 bur oaks. I'm comforted to see that some of the same species I planted, like possumhaw and spicebush, are showing up on their own in the "no mowing" area.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Celestial happening

This evening, just after sunset, look westward. Venus and the
small sliver of a crescent moon will be about a degree apart, a beautiful pairing of
the two brightest objects in the night sky. The event will be visible even
from brightly lit cities and through thin clouds.
After the sky darkens, you'll also be able to see
Castor and Pollux, the brightest stars of Gemini, just above.

Sky map here. And a more aesthetically appealing graphic here.

Friday, May 18, 2007


Driving along the levee road on warm, wet spring nights is a challenge. If I'm not dodging toads and frogs flushed out by the rain, I'm stopping every few hundred yards to move them 100 feet off the road. Of course, I know this is a temporary solution. Invariably, they'll hop right back into traffic.

If you drive over 30 mph, your windshield wipers quickly fill up with the bright yellow flickering lights of fireflies. When that happens, slow down and wait for the beetles to dislodge out of the wiperblades to continue their courtship until another, faster driver passes. It's probably a good thing I don't know my moths very well.

Fireflies are really common in most of rural Missouri, a state with thousands of miles of unpolluted rivers, streams and creeks. A member of the Lampyridae family, fireflies thrive in the leaf litter of moist woods along streambanks. In their larval stage, "glowworms" feed on earthworms, snails and slugs. With their sharp mandibles, larvae inject anaesthetic into their prey, thereby immobilizing it. Glowworms may, too, scavenge on dead snails and worms. Speculation holds that adult fireflies feed on plant nectar as well as other invertebrates.

Firefly flash patterns have been intensely studied and documented. Flashes occur when a substrate (Luciferin), combines with an enzyme (Luciferase), ATP (Adenosine triphosphate) and oxygen. Very little heat is given off during the flash; almost 100% of the energy is given off as light. Compare that to an incandescent bulb, where 90% of the energy is wasted on heat and only 10% comes out as light. The mechanism of flash patterns is under debate. A plausible theory suggests that a firefly can restrict or control the oxygen supply to the photic region of the tail end. Cells at the tail end, called tracheal cells, may release a messenger molecule which activates the production of oxygen, allowing the chemical process to occur.

Different species of fireflies have different flash patterns. Flashing is used not only as a warning signal to predators, but as a tool for mating. Males flash their species-specific flash to females who perch on nearby vegetation or on the ground. The female flashes back after a specific time delay; sometimes, a flash dialogue takes place before mating. Certain characteristics of male flash patterns (like increased flash rate or time delay) influence mating success, just as ornate male birdsong influences bird breeding patterns.

Females of one genus mimic the responses of other fireflies in the area. When a female attracts a male of another species, she will devour him, thereby gaining some of his light-producing defensive chemicals and making her signal stronger.

Countrywide, firefly populations aren't as stable as they are in Missouri. Polluted waters, widespread pesticide use which damages non-target organisms and light pollution are the three main factors causing their decline. Intense light interferes with the breeding firefly's ability to see flash patterns. If you're in a place with fireflies, you might notice they're not very active during the full moon.

Fireflies lay their eggs in moist soil with leaf litter. They like brushy, weedy areas not too far from a water source. So, put away the pesticide and don't mow as much. Fireflies won't be the only invertebrates who will appreciate it.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Summer's first float trip

Because the circle I canoe with never goes canoeing on weekends, we're usually the only floaters that have to be driven to the designated "put out spot." Invariably, I end up in the front seat with the driver. Because we tend to float long distances, we spend a decent amount of time in the van. I always ask questions about the river, if business has slacked off since the "no rowdiness" rule was put into place, where's a good place to eat after the float. I generally learn a lot from the driver.

Today's driver hailed from Malden. He left the Bootheel because he couldn't handle the way farmers take out fencerows (and then complain about not having any rabbits). He hated how his water pressure dropped significantly every summer because farmers ditched off all the rainwater before it could seep into the aquifer. He left Malden about 15 years ago, when farming practices turned for the worse. Farmers didn't just take out fencerows (he yelled as we were getting in the canoe), they even mowed down all the windbreaks, which caused massive soil erosion.

Just before today's driver left the Bootheel, downtown Malden died. It's a familiar story: Walmart moved in and all the small stores closed. Sure, the air base closed and the Ford manufacturing company moved away, but the downtown businesses still managed to get by. When Walmart came to town, downtown shuttered its doors except for the pizza place. So, the driver picked up and moved to one of the pretty parts of Missouri, the Current River, an area with vast stretches of woods, clean rivers and federal protection. The Current is part of the Ozark Scenic Riverways, a river trail managed by National Park Service.

The banks of the Current River harbor a large population of giant cane. Aside from a relictual population somewhere on the Meramec River, this is the only place outside the embayment in Missouri where cane grows. And it grows prolifically. At the end of the canoe trip, I finally saw the bird that I had heard all day. Not one, but TWO cane obligate Swainson's warblers, in plain view! Today there were lots of yellow warblers, vireos and cedar waxwings along the riverbank. Seeing the Swainson's warbler was bittersweet. I've wanted to see it for a few years now, but I've wanted to see it in the park. I guess I just had to look outside the Bootheel where there's more habitat.

Pictures! Big Spring, which discharges 154 million gallons of water a day; small spring in a cave; columbine; Orconectes luteus, a common Ozark crayfish.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Flood Stage

A quick bike ride to the river chute at Island No. 7 showed me what I needed to see. The Mississippi River is exactly where it was for the Christmas Bird Count, right around 22 ft. Cape Girardeau is expecting moderate flooding tomorrow; houses downtown and some low lying businesses will see water at their steps. As the river passes the east side of Crowley's Ridge, an area unprotected by levees, the water level will drop as the river is able to fan out over vast stretches of farmland and the town of Commerce. By Monday at New Madrid, the Mississippi River will start dropping well below its regular spring levels.

Last week, I thought I'd have to spend Monday moving my office upstairs, parking my car on the levee and paddling back through brown water. Instead, I'm doing what any self-respecting outdoors person would do with a Truman Day holiday: I'm going canoeing in the Ozarks.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Swamp Leather Flower

It's mid-May and the forest canopy has completely recovered from last month's hard frost. The closed canopy invites owls to call all day from the forest interior and I now have to use a flash to take pictures in the middle of the day. In the few breaks in the canopy (where, for example, a tree has fallen), the ground layer is covered in this delicate, purple flowering vine, Clematis crispa.

A relative to the showier horticultural cultivars of clematis, this wetland obligate plant is often overlooked in the swamp. It isn't a larval host plant for butterflies and the sparse flowers are short lived. Nevertheless, it's one of the few flowers blooming in the swamp right now, and the nectar has been devoured by spicebush swallowtails all week.

While swamp leather flower is common in southeastern U.S. swamps, range maps place it in only a few isolated populations in the northern embayment. Population status isn't known for Missouri; it doesn't appear in the Flora or in Shrubs and Vines of Missouri. Populations are threatened in Kentucky and rare in Illinois, so I imagine based on available habitat that Missouri's populations are in the same boat.

Get out in your public lands tomorrow and celebrate International Migratory Bird Day! Catch warblers and waders as they make the flight to Canada. Otherwise, you can wait for the fall, when you may need Peterson's "Confusing Fall Warbler" section.