Saturday, April 28, 2007

It's JazzFest time!

If you can't make it to New Orleans during the next week, you can eavesdrop on the greatest music festival in the South. Listen to some live streaming from the fairgrounds at WWOZ. You won't hear any of the lousy national acts like Rod Stewart, but you should tune in when the brass bands are scheduled. Sorry, the public radio station can't get you any closer to crawfish monica or strawberry lemonade.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Southern pearly eyes


Weighing in as the third most common butterfly in the woods this spring (#1 pearl crescent, #2 zebra swallowtail) is the Southern pearly eye. If you enlarge the picture, you can see a small pearl white spot in the center of each of the four spots on the forewing. In Missouri, as in everywhere else in its range, the Southern pearly eye only lives where the larval host plant, giant cane, grows. Aside from counties in the embayment, counties along the Current River drainage and at the Missouri-Arkansas border also harbor cane populations.

Southern pearly eyes belong to the family Satyridae, which includes ringlets, wood nymphs and satyrs. Butterflies of this family do not feed on flower nectar but gain sustenance from tree sap, rotting fruit, carrion and manure.

Eggs of the Southern pearly eye are laid singly on or near cane. The larva has the ability to hibernate during the winter, though they breed from April to November. There are two other butterflies who depend on cane for their life cycle, the Creole pearly eye and the southern swamp skipper. Research in the past 20 years determined that the now extinct Bachman's warbler depended on cane obligate invertebrates like the pearly eye. Young birds were fed the Southern pearly eye caterpillars, but with the conversion of canebrakes to cropland, the cane invertebrates also disappeared. And without the invertebrates, so goes the bird.

The now rare Swainson's warbler is headed in the same direction as the Bachman's warbler. Swainson's warblers, too, depend on the caterpillars to feed their young. Luckily, several agencies are spearheading efforts to restore cane to southeast Missouri with the conservation of the Swainson's warbler in mind.

A close relative of the Southern pearly eye is the common eastern species, the pearly eye. This butterfly lives in moist woods from Arkansas to Canada and east to the Atlantic. The pearly eye feeds on grasses other than cane. The most distinguishable difference between the two is the color of the antennal knobs: the Southern pearly eye has orange knobs while the common pearly eye has orange knobs outlined in black. A digital camera with a good zoom lens helps to determine the species, as does offering the butterflies an intoxicating slurry of beer, bananas and yeast. They sit still for several minutes at a time on bait stations, essentially drunk on the fermented fruit.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Bragging rights

A short list of the birds I saw this afternoon at the park: red-eyed vireo, yellow-throated vireo, blue-headed vireo, white-eyed vireo, fish crow, great crested flycatcher, bluebird, northern parula, meadowlark, palm warbler, worm eating warbler, yellow rumped warbler, bald eagle, barred owl, ruby crowned kinglet, Kentucky warbler, yellow warbler, hermit thrush, ibis, blue winged teal, green heron, wood duck, chipping sparrow, swamp sparrow, rufous sided towhee, pine warbler, indigo bunting, a host of usual suspects (chickadees, white-throated sparrows, hummingbirds, etc.) and the crown jewel, the prothonotary warbler, pictured above in the banner.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Downtown Malden


If I had to live in any town in southeast Missouri (Cape Girardeau notwithstanding), I would live in Malden. This quiet little town in the valley of Crowley's Ridge is pleasant, the people are really nice, it has a good grocery store that sells leeks and cilantro, and, most importantly, Malden is taking great strides to create economic opportunity in light of not-so-recent depression. Malden has been approved for a DREAM grant, state-sponsored grant funding offered to small communities throughout Missouri to reinvigorate once-thriving downtowns. Paving the way for a viable downtown community is James Ealey, who runs Pizza Express on Malden's South Madison Street.

James moved to Malden 9 years ago when he saw an opportunity to fire up his pizza oven in a late 19th century downtown building. He hired a local artist to paint a lavish trompe l'oeil of a bustling downtown scene on the far wall. James affixed fake wisteria and ivy over the entrance, the windows, and on the railings, creating a bright, warm environment. He kept the original 19th century floor tiles and the tongue and groove paneling. His small, corner location attracts locals and customer from neighboring towns like Risco and Lilbourn on weekends. Some nights, his restaurant is full, others it's empty. He delivers pizzas to towns as far as 25 miles away.
Pizza Express has outlived several other commercial attempts in downtown Malden. Chain retailers have moved into the city, filling the void indirectly caused by the closing of the Malden Air Force base in the mid-1960s. WalMart, Taco Bell, KFC, Sonic and a few others have built their stores on Hwy. 25, a stone's throw from downtown. But to get to Taco Bell from Hwy. 61, you have to pass through the mostly shuttered downtown. James remains stalwart in his business venture; he's heard the DREAM grant is pending and if he's lasted 9 years in the current economic climate, he can wait for the promise of a thriving downtown which will only mean more business.

In light of the economic depression in Malden, efforts are underway to remove the town mayor and replace the office with a City Planner who will expedite the revitalization process. The curator at the Malden Historical Museum thinks the town needs to hire someone unrelated to the city, one who "doesn't owe anyone in Malden a dime." The city has apparently had issues in the past with private and civic businesses interfering with one another. The curator would like to see someone in the office who genuinely cares about the community, who will give the town a new focus. Meanwhile, her museum, a vast storehouse of local history, survives on donations. Since there are few reasons to come to Malden, the museum doesn't see a lot of visitors (If you're ever in Malden, see the museum--after the staff learn your name, they'll call you "honey" and "dear" all afternoon.).

With proper urban planning, Malden could be a viable community once again. The drive-in theater, bowling alleys, five and dime stores, clothing stores all disappeared when the Malden Air Base closed. This nice community needs a shot in the arm. They need industry, recreational opportunities, and a working downtown.

I've passed Pizza Express once a week since December, 2005, but never went in. After several days of early rising caused by the 6 am arrival of roofers, I decided to stop in for a cup of coffee. James said he had been waiting for someone to want one, because he didn't want to make a whole pot for himself. We sat and talked about Malden politics and the DREAM grant. According to James, the money can't come soon enough. While Pizza Express continues to do brisk business, anyone can see that he would love to see a bustling downtown, not just on his walls, but outside his windows.

Jonas Plumer Stewart, Sr.


In 1856, young J.P. Stewart set out from Chesterfield, S.C. in a covered wagon to explore the western territory. He settled down with his young bride, Jane, in Poinsett Co., Arkansas, just across the Missouri state line. Shortly after he learned the lay of the land, he built a grist mill at the small community of Old Chalk Bluff, site of the Battle of Chalk Bluff.

An outspoken Southern sympathizer and Democrat, Stewart was captured by Union forces after the Battle of Chalk Bluff. He was forced to stay at Old Four Mile, 4 miles north of Campbell, Missouri, where the Union battalion was camped. The general in charge of the battalion released Stewart and urged him to take a yoke of oxen and return home. However, during his time as a prisoner, Stewart grew fond of Missouri's Crowley's Ridge and vowed to return to the area of his imprisonment with his family.

Despite his capture by Union soldiers, Stewart remained a staunch supporter of the Southern cause. In 1863, after Little Rock fell to the Union, Stewart moved to Missouri where he could keep his slaves. He moved to Campbell and subsequently joined Gen. Sterling Price's army. When the war ended, Stewart finally saw his dream come true: he moved his family to a small farm on the eastern slope of Crowley's Ridge.

Carpetbaggers were rampant in southeast Missouri after the war, but Stewart took his chances and built a new grist mill a few miles north of Campbell. Soon after, he built a cotton gin and a flour mill. The nearest market for his milled items was Cape Girardeau. One night, on his return home from the market, Stewart's wagon overturned and his 14 year old son, Virgil, was killed instantly. Stewart brought Virgil back to the homestead and found a nice, quiet place in the woods to bury him.

By 1874, Stewart owned several hundred wooded acres and began to harvest lumber for the construction of the Texas and St. Louis Railroad that joined Mississippi Co. to Jonesboro, Arkansas. All of the timber coming out of southeast Missouri would travel by train along the only high ground in the area, Crowley's Ridge.

By the 1890s, Stewart realized the possibility of fruit production on the Ridge. He was the first to plant the peach trees that gives Campbell the esteemed reputation of Missouri's Peach Capital. In fact, Stewart's original peach plantation has been in production continuously, next to Stewart's woods (now protected as a state park), since the late 1800s.

Stewart's grist mill, the first mill in Dunklin Co., was robbed an then burned down in the early 1900s by a local bandit named Wiley Jones. Late in life, after his mill burned, Stewart returned to promoting the educational causes that he practiced as a young man in South Carolina. He was recorded as the first citizen of Dunklin Co. to insist that his children attend college (Normal College at Cape Girardeau). Stewart became a biblical scholar but retained his convictions on slavery; these beliefs earned him the title "radical" by locals.

J.P. Stewart Sr. died in 1916 in his home on Crowley's Ridge. He and his three wives and multiple children are buried deep in the state park, away from any trails or signs of human disturbance. Genealogy websites indicate that the Stewarts are buried 15 miles away from their actual resting place in an official Dunklin Co. cemetery. Based on his rich life and his affinity for the land, he'd probably prefer his true resting place, his own Crowley's Ridge woods.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Pearl Crescents


Several days of rainy, cold weather has given way to blue, windy skies and highs in the upper 50s. This morning the water-logged forest was full of blooming sedges, violets and insects gorging on the bright yellow butterweed. I was followed on my slow hike through the water by a pearly crescent, a small brush-footed butterfly with a wingspan of 3-4 cm. Members of the brush-footed family (Nymphalidae)have small front legs that impede them from walking.

Pearl crescents have several "flights" a year, which means they breed and metamorphose several times a year. They generally breed between April and November in most of their range, but in the deep South, they breed year-round. Both caterpillars and butterflies can hibernate, emerging in the spring.

These small butterflies live throughout the eastern U.S.and west to Montana and Mexico in moist areas where their host plants, asters, are available. For a small insect, they can be rather territorial, bullying other butterflies away from the mud puddles that they use for mineral feeding. When pearl crescents rest, they keep their wings spread, which made photographing this female easier than photographing a swallowtail. Even though I can't remember having seen them before, pearl crescents are the most common butterflies throughout their range.

Several years ago, in a customary act of kindness, Doug bought me the definitive Butterflies of North America after he quietly listened to me complain all day about not knowing the butterflies of the Eunice prairie. So, after receiving the book, I set out to learn my butterflies. Sedges, grasses, hickories, composites--all superceded my butterfly education. I have checked the book's pictures a few times in the past 3 years to simply identify certain species, but I have not, by any means, learned my butterflies.

I've hired an entomologist to conduct a lepidoptera survey at the park this summer. When I'm not helping the turtle surveyor, I'll be netting moths and butterflies, making occurrence lists for the park's records. There will be no excuse not to crack the spine on my fancy butterfly book this summer.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Blue winged teal


After another round of meetings in the Ozarks, I arrive home to reports of flocks of blue winged teal in the bayou. They're the latest duck to migrate northward in the spring and the first to head south in the fall. Their presence reminds me that the migration doesn't stop just because I'm not at the Conservation Area chalking up species on my list.

Blue winged teal belong to a group of ducks known as "dabblers." Birds in this group generally feed on plant matter and aquatic invertebrates by dabbling on the water's surface; they often feed on land as well. With mallards weighing in as the most abundant duck in North America, blue winged teal come in at second place. They breed in the Great Plains of Kansas to Canada, creating nests on the ground which are lined with grasses and down. Nests are usually surrounded by tall emergent wetland grasses. Drought in the prairie states and predation on the eggs by skunks can negatively impact populations.

These are remarkably small birds. On average, blue winged teal are 11 inches long. By comparison, mallards average 22 inches long. Their name is derived from the powder blue wing patch seen during flight. Plumages of female and immature birds resemble the less common cinnamon teal and green winged teal, both of whom I have seen scores of in south Louisiana, mostly lifeless birds shot by my father at Lacassine. The long white stripe down the face of the blue winged teal is striking, as is the bird's size.

The two flocks (12 birds each) will likely hang around the bayou for a few weeks, and then they'll head northward to their breeding grounds. They're only transients here in southeast Missouri. The mergansers have moved northward already and I hear the black ducks are gone, too. However, we bought a big bag of corn for all the mallards who will be spending summer with us on the bayou.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Illinois Chorus Frogs


The bell-like whistles of Illinois chorus frogs resemble the high pitched "preeps" of spring peepers so dramatically that I listened to recordings of both calls, one after another, about thirty times. The difference is clear now: peepers have a slight rise in pitch at the end of the calling note. Since the breeding period began, I have heard a single ICF call. My turtle surveyor, Brad (who furnished the great picture), has heard them in chorus and seen them on several occasions this spring. He's marked the locations and even checked for tadpoles following calling events. I have no excuse not to have seen them but that every rain event seems to occur when I'm in the Ozarks.

The small, 1-1 1/2 inch warty frogs are listed as rare by the Missouri Dept. of Conservation, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to list the frog as endangered. The only known, disjunct populations are in southeast Missouri, northern Arkansas and southern Illinois. ICFs are one of the few animals who have adapted to the many landscape changes that have occurred in the past 100 years. They used to live in sand prairie wetlands, but with most sand prairie now in cotton and soybean cultivation, ICFs have managed to survive in the agricultural ditches and cultivated fields.

Research in the past 5 years has unveiled not only the soil types the frogs live in, but that the frogs are responsible for keeping boll weevil populations in check. ICFs are fossorial but emerge from the sand to breed in the early spring and, on occasion, to feed during heavy summer rain events. They only live in certain sand series: Clana-Malden, Crevasse-Canalou, Clana-Canalou and so on. Aside from cultivated fields and ditches, the frogs live in the sandflats of Crowley's Ridge and in historic sand prairie territory of Scott, Dunklin and Mississippi Counties. Suitable breeding habitats (herbaceous wetlands) are rare, but when the frogs are present, they tend to be locally abundant.

Cotton pesticides and defoliants (heptachlor epoxide and DDE) have been found in high concentrations in Scott Co. frogs. The Clean Water Act only protects isolated pools if the continued existence of the rare or endangered animal is threatened. In Missouri, when ICF populations are located, the state herpetologist steps in to protect them. Traditionally, he alerts the landowner of the rare frog population. Natural history of the animal is explained and the landowner is encouraged to continue the current management practices (if the wetland provides enough habitat for the frog), or is referred to an NRCS wetland biologist to transform part of the property into a viable wetland. In the past 6 years, thousands of Wetland Reserve Program dollars, set aside by the Farm Bill to encourage wildlife conservation projects, have been spent to establish appropriate breeding grounds for the ICFs.

Agricultural habitats are not optimum for these animals. Nevertheless, despite all the odds, they continue to thrive in southeast Missouri, whistling in the warm spring nights just as they did in the sand prairies.

Charleston's Dogwood & Azalea Festival


Last week, Charleston looked like Augusta, Georgia during the Master's tournament. The lovely antebellum homes on Hwy. NN were ablaze with dogwoods and azaleas, as far as the eye could see. The frost put an end to all of that. The trees and shrubs bloomed two weeks earlier than they had in the past, and the 38th AnnualDogwood and Azalea Festival Committee is probably not very happy about that.

The festival won't begin for another week, three weeks after peak bloom and two weeks after a killing frost. The Charleston Chamber of Commerce has dedicated thousands of hours to this year's festival. Tourists come from all over the mid-south to Missouri's bootheel for the fish fry, the quilt displays, the bluegrass music, the petting zoo and fair rides. The festival has a pageant, an ice cream social, a series of piano concerts, and an extensive exhibit of toy trains. Charleston's festival is the county seat's big event and the last day of each event is the first day of planning for the next year's event.

I have a sneaky suspicion that in the days leading up to the festival there will be a run on silk spring flowers at the local discount retailer. The shelves will likely be cleared of everything but tumbleweeds. Even though it will be full of silk flowers, the town of Charleston will have another successful, beautiful Dogwood and Azalea Festival.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Hard Frost

Before today, the Chief of Natural History had never said these three words in sequence to me: "I don't know." Like many Missourians I have been concerned about the recent spate of freezing weather that interrupted spring, killing the fresh green leaves on almost every tree in the state. So I went to the expert to find out what was going to happen to all the trees. Would they have a second budding? Would larger, drought stressed trees give up and die after all the sap production? What does the frost mean for acorn production?

Chief admitted he had never seen anything like the recent weather event. He's a solid guy, a lot like Gary Cooper. He told me not to worry, that a lot of trees will green out again, but the hickories might not. Trees and shrubs that produce berries important to fall warbler populations will likely not produce berries this year. In the southeast, I can expect few if any acorns. Low mast production will have terrible effects not only on oak regeneration, but more immediately on mammal populations.

After creating several scenarios of fully recovered forests and greatly altered landscapes, Chief repeated himself, "I really just don't know." I have a feeling that, without telling me, and while colleagues are pummeling him with questions about the frost, he's thinking "That's nature. It can be cruel." This is a man who once asked me why I was taking a box turtle (who had been flushed 2 miles into a cave) out of a cave. Natural processes sent the box turtle deep into the cave where it would surely die and serve as a food source for invertebrates who are a food source for salamanders, etc. I told him I respected his thoughts, which I did, but I also respect the life history of box turtles whose numbers continue to drop in Missouri due to car traffic.

From an agricultural standpoint, things are not okay after the frost. Farmers on Crowley's Ridge lost all of their peaches and apples for the season. Some of the older trees might die. Throughout the southeastern states, the 6 consecutive days of killing frost utterly destroyed crops. Blueberries from the South will be unaffordable this summer, if they're available at all. Grape growers in Hermann, Missouri have placed orders in California for this year's grapes. The folks at River Ridge haven't. Jerry grows heirloom varieties (he has some from Thos. Jefferson's vineyard) and natives which will all put out a second bud. It might not be the best vintage, but his crops aren't a total loss.

The frost has a meager bright side: with spring growth stunted, we're able to burn 900 acres of Taum Sauk Mountain on Tuesday (if the mountain doesn't get walloped with 2 inches of predicted snow). Birding in the short, nude trees of the Ozarks this afternoon was a cinch. I saw more black and white warblers, blue grey gnatcatchers, hermit thrushes, and prairie warblers than I've ever seen before. Pesky leaves weren't in the way. Finally, the boxelder samaras bit the dust, which means fewer invasive boxelders in the bottomland forest this year.

As usual, I'll listen to Chief and not worry about the state of Missouri's woods after the frost. For those of you who have asked, my garden fared well. I threw bed sheets over it every night and I only lost the Swiss chard. Cilantro, sweet peas, lettuces and dill are doing just fine. Maybe that's what the country needed last week: one big bedsheet.

post scriptum: I arrive home to find a small wire connecting the stereo to the ficus tree in the corner. With the wire, I have NPR again! I think the little piece of wire is called an antenna. The Cape Girardeau station comes through now, but I think I missed their spring pledge drive.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Van Allen Belt

When I first heard Christian rock blaring from my NPR station, I thought someone had changed the frequency. That afternoon, I called the Memphis-based station, left a message on their voicemail about "something strange happening to my NPR station." Later that day, I got a return call from the station: "I just got your message about Christian rock. It's too complicated to explain on a voicemail, so please call my direct line and I'll tell you happened to your BBC programs..." Apparently, the market for NPR and the BBC in Senatobia/Dyersburg has dwindled to about three of us and in light of that, the mother Memphis station sold their satellite to a Christian rock station. The good news is that the Paducah station, which carries This American Life (and thankfully not Calling all Pets )is going digital this week; they should have a stronger signal that just might reach the southeast Lowlands.

Back in the glory days of radio, big cities had Clear Channel stations, AM stations with super-powerful coverage at night. Radio waves would bounce off the Van Allen belt and people in southeast Missouri could listen to live jazz broadcast out of a New York City nightclub. Now, with so many frequencies broadcasting, the power of any one station has been toned down so as not to interfere with other frequencies.

With the sun setting later each day, early programs like American Experience and Washington Week in Review aren't available. First, we thought it was the leafy trees blocking the signal. I accused a certain sycamore's big leaves for impeding my viewing of Wimbledon and most of the World Cup, but I was reminded of the Van Allen belt. The sun's radiation disrupts the atmosphere during the daytime, but at night, signals are clear, stronger because of the doughnut-shaped field of electricity.

It's probably pledge week for a lot of NPR affiliates. When they plead, over and over, "how would you feel if you woke up and there wasn't NPR? Morning Edition? All Things Considered?" be mindful that it really stinks. Maybe if I had donated more to the little Senatobia station, I just might have NPR tonight.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Buckeyes


For Brian, whose regular chanting of "what the hell's a buckeye?" during the game last week almost shook the windows:

It might be a disappearing custom, but when I was a kid, old men carried buckeye seeds in their pockets. The smooth brown seeds of the shrub have a large white spot in the center, hence "buckeye." Cherokee and some southern tribes were known to carry buckeyes for good luck on their hunting excursions. In Arkansas' Ozarks, the seeds are sold as a cure for rheumatism. Making a poultice of the ground up seeds evidently stops swelling, but I think the seeds are sold to encourage regular hand exercises as the seed is fondled in the pocket.

Buckeye seeds, once they mature, are known to be toxic to wildlife. In the true spirit of sportsmanship, ground up seeds have been used to make fish groggy and float to the top of the water. Deer avoid the foliage and if young leaves are foraged by livestock, they can be deadly. But the exquisite red tubular flowers, rich in nectar, bloom just as hummingbirds are arriving in the spring.

As a plant of embayment uplands, red buckeyes, a member of the horsechestnut family, are rather common in southeastern states. There are several species of buckeye in America, some that flower yellow, others white; in Missouri, the yellow flowering populations are found north of the embayment in moist woods and slopes. In Missouri, they live on the sandy ridges of Crowley's Ridge, where it is the main understory component, west towards the Current River Hills, and the river bluffs of Cape Girardeau, where it lives in spotty populations in the beech forests. Despite its rather limited range, red buckeye populations are thriving in Missouri. In Kentucky, the plant's status is threatened.

The list of curative properties attributed to buckeyes is long: a poultice made of ground up seeds stops dyspepsia and swelling of sprains. Powdered bark stops toothaches. The roots can be used as a soap substitute. Several other healing properties are listed in Paul Hamel's Cherokee Plants and their Usage. Most of the healing and useful properties of the plant were discovered by Native American tribes. However, I guess none of those properties offer the ability to stop a large reptilian predator from squashing the buckeyes' dream.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Interlude


Smack in the middle of the spring bird migration and the Illinois chorus frog breeding period in southeast Missouri, I (irresponsibly) find myself in the Grand Tetons. We're planning to burn the grassland in front of the house, to ski at the Grand Targhee and to squeeze in a few good hikes.

There's still snow on the ground in the higher elevations, but the valley is essentially dry. The mountain bluebirds and vesper sparrows are back and Alyssa has seen cranes in the marsh behind the house.

I'll be back in Missouri in a few days. If I mess up an ACL on the slopes, Alyssa promises that Jackson Hole has the best physicians in the country to treat it.