Saturday, June 30, 2007


Every summer, starting in mid-June in Missouri, cottonwoods begin dispersing their small, non-descript seeds. When the wind blows, the air fills with the seed's fluffy white plant down which often carpets the ground and clogs up outdoor air conditioning units.

Found in floodplains and along rivers, streams and lakes throughout America, cottonwoods play an important role in bird nesting behavior. Rose-breasted and evening grosbeaks feed on the seeds, but many more bird species use the plant down for lining their nests. Farmers in southeast Missouri have converted some their traditional row crops into cottonwood plantations for the pulpwood industry. These fast growing plantations have provided some habitat benefits not found in soybean crops, but a recent study conducted by the pulpwood company has revealed that while several species of breeding birds use individual cottonwoods for nesting, most species prefer nesting in virgin forest than in monoculture plantations. A handful of indigo buntings used a nearby cottonwood plantation for nesting last season, which was a handful more than nested in the previously planted soybean crops.

Cottonwoods colonize recently drained lands. They are fast growing trees, often achieving heights of 50 feet in 6 years. They are commonly used in streambank restoration projects because, like their family member, the willow tree, 3 ft. long sections of cottonwoods can be stuck in moist soils where they will grow into mighty trees within a few years. Along the Mississippi River floodplain in areas altered by levee systems or affected by natural changes in the river's course, cottonwoods grow in thick stands, shading out other understory and canopy plants. At the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, efforts are underway to return a cottonwood forest to its presettlement marsh and riverbank forest. Thick stands of cottonwoods may have been present in small numbers along the river's batture 100 years ago, but with the alterations to the river and its floodplain, the original, biologically diverse riverfront forests and marshes have all but disappeared, having been replaced by cottonwood stands. The restoration project is a difficult one for land managers: while dynamic flood cycles have returned to the area, in order for the cottonwood forest to die, it must be inundated with water for several years during the growing season.

With an average life span of 75-100 years, cottonwoods, like many other early successional species like persimmon and black oaks, are generally short lived trees. But every season, about this time, thousands of seeds are produced. Attatched to each floating bit of plant down is a seed, ready to find a moist area to set down a root.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

State of common birds

I don't know where my goldfinches are this summer. Or the indigo buntings, for that matter. Both species were so plentiful at my thistle feeders last year that I lost count when I hit 25 goldfinches and 30 buntings at one time. This year I have two goldfinches that come around everyday, but no buntings. The disappearance of the bright little birds isn't just around here; friends in the St. Francois Mountains and Outer Ozark Border haven't seen nearly the numbers as they did in years past, either. Goldfinches prefer brushy, weedy areas but are equally at home in towns and yards with a decent tree canopy. I don't think the finch eye disease could knock down a population within a year, but something has happened to them. And I haven't heard of any disease that has affected the indigo buntings.

Using 40 years worth of Christmas Bird Count and Breeding Bird Survey data, the esteemed Audubon Society has published an article outlining the state of our common birds. Once prolific throughout their range, certain birds have started disappearing by the millions from the landscape. In the article, the top 10 disappearing birds and the reasons for their decline are listed. Grassland-dependent Eastern meadowlarks and field sparrows make the list, along with the prairie-grassland-savanna staple, bobwhite quail. Habitat destruction is the main culprit of the disappearances. The ethanol boom will put the nail in the coffin for many birds who have become dependent on brushy turnrows and set-aside lands funded by Farm Bill conservation programs. There's more money in corn than conservation programs these days.

Naturally, with the destruction of the boreal and other large scale forest landscapes, forest interior bird populations are declining as well. Audubon offers hope! Don't buy products made with unsustainably grown wood. For wetland birds, get involved with wetland protection programs. Stop invasive species from encroaching on grasslands and woodlands. Finally, get involved with citizen science programs like the Christmas Bird Count.

If someone has more goldfinches than I do this summer, I'd like to know what you're doing to attract them. However dizzy their call is, I secretly enjoyed having to swat them out of my way to get to my car last year.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

My baby sister's wedding

Several weeks ago, Alyssa sent me a link to her pre-wedding photos. She needed help choosing the picture that will run in the Shreveport Times and the Jackson Hole Daily. She wanted one that didn't make her look fat (easy to do since she isn't), but showed how genuinely happy she was living in the Grand Tetons.

The fun part of this exercise wasn't finding the picture for the newspapers, but realizing that she is literally laughing in almost every picture, ecstatically happy that she's marrying Brian. I think I found a picture that showed her big blue eyes as well as the vast landscape of Teton Range. While appreciating the city's rich history, Alyssa and I loathe Shreveport's culture, dominated by very old money and societal norms that neither of us ascribe to as adults. So, the big picture and long description of the wedding in the Shreveport paper is more of an earnest battle cry of "Ha! I got out! Take that, suckers!" than anything else. She's printing it in the Jackson Hole paper just to get the word out.

When we were kids, Alyssa and I spent everyday on bicycles, venturing farther and farther away from home, making it back to our modest home on Carroll Street when the streetlights came on. It's only natural that her fiance would ride his bike everyday, coming home only when the moon is the only available light. The admiration for the western landscape is what brought Alyssa and Brian together. Alyssa is a gentle, kind person (and a great kayaker, backpacker, and skier). She's never been this happy in her life. She found Brian, a really funny guy who's also an alpinist, cyclist, and backcountry skier. She taught him how to kayak and he taught her how to telemark.

Alyssa's soft nature is perfect for Brian, who has never met anyone as well-mannered, resourceful and funny as Alyssa. She's a great cook (like my mother), she makes a big deal of birthdays and other holidays(like my mother), takes good, homeopathic care of Brian when he's sick (like my mother), patiently watches and follows the Green Bay Packers and the Wisconsin Badgers with him (like my mother does with Jack.) and she goes birding while Brian's fishing on the Snake River. I learned this on my last trip out there, but Alyssa makes and brings him coffee in bed every morning. That alone is grounds for marriage.

So, what does my awesome baby sister have to do with southeast Missouri and it's natural and cultural history? Not a whit. But that I'm heading west for the wedding in a few hours. I'm taking a route crafted by an expert of western landscapes which will allow me to see Nebraska's Sand Hills, South Dakota's Black Hills and the Badlands, as well as some seminal sites I've managed to miss in Wyoming. I'm prone to tear up when I see huge, uninterrupted natural landscapes, but I probably won't post any cool pictures unless I'm asked to. Or if I can find a tenuous link to southeast Missouri...

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan

Today is Bloomsday, the day when literary-minded sorts gather in small groups over tables of Guinness and liver and onions for a complete, 18 hour reading of James Joyce's Ulysses. I've never joined in a reading, but during my undergraduate career I traditionally took June 16th off from work, often setting out on a small adventure to honor the wanderings of Stephen Dedalus. We do silly things during college...
One of my favorite lines from the book mirrors Homer's description of Mercury. It reminds me of my own clumsy Homeric translations when I tried, in vain, to maintain meter:
Quick warm sunlight came running from Berkeley Road, swiftly, in slim sandals, along the brightening footpath. Runs, she runs to meet me, a girl with gold hair on the wind. (4.240-245)

So, do something Odyssean today. Or at least raise a pint of Guinness in honor of a curious, maligned writer.

Sunday, June 03, 2007


There's a glaring omission in Edgar Denison's glossy Missouri Wildflowers and Caroline Dorman's landmark Wildflowers of the Deep South. Neither book includes swamp milkweed in their catalogues of native plants. Asclepias perennis is one of the more delicate, pink-flowering milkweeds and it's only found in the soils of the Mississippi embayment.

I have a colleague who, earlier in his career, worked on embayment-specific dragonflies in southern Illinois. He has a special place in his heart for the embayment and one of the most common plants in it, A. perennis. So, last week, when I mentioned to him that milkweed is in full bloom in the swamp, he turned wistful and sighed, "ah, Asclepias perennis. Is there a finer one around?" That's a personal question. Glade lovers think the same about A. verticillata, a conservative green flowering milkweed that only grows on dolomitic south facing slopes. Prairie aficionados appreciate the bright orange A. tuberosa above all others because it stands out in the prairie every summer. Regardless, why is the swamp species left out of wildflower guides? A. perennis is like a lot of other embayment-only plants: it's only known from a few states, from a dwindling and maligned (but ecologically rich) habitat.

Ask a monarch butterfly which is the finest of the milkweeds and the rating system falls apart. Monarchs depend on any plants of the genus Asclepias for egg laying. The larval form of monarchs eat milkweed leaves and stems, even of the popular cultivar, A. currasavica from Brazil, sold in nurseries as "butterfly weed." Monarch numbers continue to drop worldwide not only because of habitat destruction in their wintering grounds, but habitat destruction in America. Many common milkweeds thrive in overgrown, weedy patches, areas that are regularly mowed for highway maintenance or, worse still, sprayed with herbicide.

Long before perennis was blooming this spring, monarchs were hovering around a concentrated area in the swamp. I didn't notice the milkweed growing there among the sedges, but the monarchs did. They have the ability to see things we can't. They knew perennis was there months before it was in bloom. Of course, now that it's in full bloom I can barely take a picture of the plant without a butterfly on it.