Thursday, December 30, 2010

Invasive species and the biodiversity crisis

From EurekAlert:

What triggers mass extinctions? Study shows how invasive species stop new life
Collapse of Earth's marine life 378 to 375 million years ago holds key

An influx of invasive species can stop the dominant natural process of new species formation and trigger mass extinction events, according to research results published today in the journal PLoS ONE.

The study of the collapse of Earth's marine life 378 to 375 million years ago suggests that the planet's current ecosystems, which are struggling with biodiversity loss, could meet a similar fate.

Although Earth has experienced five major mass extinction events, the environmental crash during the Late Devonian was unlike any other in the planet's history.

The actual number of extinctions wasn't higher than the natural rate of species loss, but very few new species arose.

"We refer to the Late Devonian as a mass extinction, but it was actually a biodiversity crisis," said Alycia Stigall, a scientist at Ohio University and author of the PLoS ONE paper.

"This research significantly contributes to our understanding of species invasions from a deep-time perspective," said Lisa Boush, program director in the National Science Foundation (NSF)'s Division of Earth Sciences, which funded the research.&

"The knowledge is critical to determining the cause and extent of mass extinctions through time, especially the five biggest biodiversity crises in the history of life on Earth. It provides an important perspective on our current biodiversity crises."

The research suggests that the typical method by which new species originate--vicariance--was absent during this ancient phase of Earth's history, and could be to blame for the mass extinction.

Vicariance occurs when a population becomes geographically divided by a natural, long-term event, such as the formation of a mountain range or a new river channel, and evolves into different species.

New species also can originate through dispersal, which occurs when a subset of a population moves to a new location.

In a departure from previous studies, Stigall used phylogenetic analysis, which draws on an understanding of the tree of evolutionary relationships to examine how individual speciation events occurred.

She focused on one bivalve, Leptodesma (Leiopteria), and two brachiopods, Floweria and Schizophoria (Schizophoria), as well as a predatory crustacean, Archaeostraca.

These small, shelled marine animals were some of the most common inhabitants of the Late Devonian oceans, which had the most extensive reef system in Earth's history.

The seas teemed with huge predatory fish such as Dunkleosteus, and smaller life forms such as trilobites and crinoids (sea lilies).

The first forests and terrestrial ecosystems appeared during this time; amphibians began to walk on land.

As sea levels rose and the continents closed in to form connected land masses, however, some species gained access to environments they hadn't inhabited before.

The hardiest of these invasive species that could thrive on a variety of food sources and in new climates became dominant, wiping out more locally adapted species.

The invasive species were so prolific at this time that it became difficult for many new species to arise.

"The main mode of speciation that occurs in the geological record is shut down during the Devonian," said Stigall. "It just stops in its tracks."

Of the species Stigall studied, most lost substantial diversity during the Late Devonian, and one, Floweria, became extinct.

The entire marine ecosystem suffered a major collapse. Reef-forming corals were decimated and reefs did not appear on Earth again for 100 million years.

The giant fishes, trilobites, sponges and brachiopods also declined dramatically, while organisms on land had much higher survival rates.

The study is relevant for the current biodiversity crisis, Stigall said, as human activity has introduced a high number of invasive species into new ecosystems.

In addition, the modern extinction rate exceeds the rate of ancient extinction events, including the event that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

"Even if you can stop habitat loss, the fact that we've moved all these invasive species around the planet will take a long time to recover from because the high level of invasions has suppressed the speciation rate substantially," Stigall said.

Maintaining Earth's ecosystems, she suggests, would be helped by focusing efforts and resources on protection of new species generation.

"The more we know about this process," Stigall said, "the more we will understand how to best preserve biodiversity."

The research was also funded by the American Chemical Society and Ohio University

Squirrel's larder

Looking through my frost covered windows into the snowy backyard, the plump red squirrels looked more like fancy Gund stuffed toys than the animate creatures they are. This was a banner fall for red oak acorns, and autumn’s invasion of red squirrels and ground-feeding yellow-shafted flickers into my pin oak-black oak-chinquapin oak urban backyard signaled a good mast year for the city block. Mast production of red oaks was great throughout the Ozark Highlands this year, and in some parts of the state white oaks fared well also.

Squirrels like fatty red oak acorns, but if the white oak acorns are more abundant, they will eat more of them just after acorn drop. Recent research has shown that squirrels will only eat the top part of the red oak acorn (about 60% of it) to avoid the concentrated tannins at the embyronic end. Even though squirrels eat the bulk of an acorn, the remaining part can still produce a tree. Estimates suggest that 74% of all buried acorns are never found again. White oaks send out taproots days and weeks after they fall, while red oaks sprout the following spring. Since the tannins in white oak acorns are concentrated in the taproot, squirrels tend to eat them first, and store red oak acorns for the winter; so, in good mast years like this one in parts of the Ozarks, squirrels are fattening up for a productive spring.

Historically, before the age of active fire suppression and livestock grazing in the woods (followed by annual burning and grazing), much of the Ozarks was dominated by white oak, white oak-black oak, or even white oak-post oak associations. Due directly to the lack of fire and a long history of grazing following European settlement, tree associations in the Ozarks favored a red oak-black oak dominance. Livestock are very hard on white oaks. It has been suggested that the now-extinct passenger pigeons played a significant role in the propagation of white oaks in Ozark woodlands, and it is widely accepted that squirrels and blue jays are largely responsible for planting the woodlands in red oak and black oak. Good for flooring, but not as desirable as white oaks for wildlife food.

Today, nodding a backwards glance towards the early days of the age of extraction, some in agribusiness and conservation industry suggest that grazing cattle in woodlands is beneficial for both woodlands and for growing protein. Grazing cattle in Missouri's native ecosystems is terribly destructive, and because of a long history of grazing following settlement, we have thousands and thousands of acres of out-of-context, destroyed, jacked up, trashed out, depauperate, unrestorable landscapes (that aren't even worth burning unless you're managing for buckbrush, annual weeds, poison ivy and oak sprouts). Grazing has changed the face of Missouri's native ecosystems forever, and not positively. Grazing cattle in woodlands is as conscientious for biodiversity as clearcutting Amazonian rainforests to grow steak.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Winter walk in chert woods

I recognized several years ago that biodiversity in Missouri is doomed, totally unsustainable. It's very sad, actually, and on those dark winter days when birds aren't around (but hunkered into cedar boughs to wait out the clouds) it's nice to still be able to go to decent enough (but vast in scale) post oak woodlands managed for their highest and best use, for ecosystem protection above all else.

And winter botany is only fun when there's a biodiverse understory around: tall and rangy Lespedeza hirta, big, strapping Aster linariifolius stalks, Solidago juncea , switch grass and Indian grass and the bluestems, sweet everlasting with that distinctive scent, and a strange Muhlenbergia I've never seen before. A nice winter day in nice burned-5-times-in-15-years woods....

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Bluebird skies

Thick, crisp white snow carpeted the landscape during the Christmas Bird Counts today. Assigned to Section 6 of the COMO circle, I was treated to song sparrows by the droves, and thousands--around 9,000, actually--of waterfowl hanging out in the artificial wetlands outside of town. Among the 9,000 birds in the marsh were shovelers, pintail, thousands of mallards whose wingbeats above sent chills down my spine, wigeons, wood ducks, green-wing teal (about 200), coots, Virginia rails clucking in the yellow cattails, marsh wrens and swamp sparrows.

Highlights from the day came from the woodlands, my favorite landscape in all Missouri:

A hermit thrush flitting from branch to branch in a fencerow along the KATY Trail, the only speckled thrush that winters in Missouri in significant numbers. Wonderful birds with big, baleful eyes and a trim little beak

Super sleek and elegant multi-colored Lincoln sparrows eating monarda seeds

We spent so much time with the waterfowl that we didn't hit the woodlands until 10 am. We were imnmediately greeted by three darling golden-crowned kinglets offering their little meager pip! high up in a sycamore, finally moving down the tree so we could see them up close.

Bluebirds. It's hard to find a more brilliant blue in nature than the plumage of Eastern bluebirds. Four (3 males, one female) were seen in the canopy along a wooded section of Hinkson Creek, all basking in the bright late afternoon sun that literally electrified their colors.

The stark white chest of a brown creeper moved into view at the bottom of a hickory snag. He quickly danced up the tree, skirting from side to side.

One lone fox sparrow, the largest of the sparrows on our list, revealed himself to us in a tangle of vines along Perche Creek.

So it begins, the Christmas Bird Count season. Next up this week is the western Ozarks and hopefully so many red-headed woodpeckers that I start counting them by fives.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Multiplying by droves

For the past few years, once, twice or thrice a week, I have had the great fortune to travel one of Missouri's deadliest roads, Highway 63, to head deep into the heart of the Ozarks. There's no way around traveling Hwy. 63 to do what I do during the week, and every time I do it, I end up with white knuckles, but grateful to arrive at my destination alive.

Among the highlights of the drive are small German Catholic communities that advertise on big plywood boards their Fall Suppers, Visitations (I don't know what those are, but I don't think they're associated with funerals), Holiday Suppers, and Festivals too numerous to count. I don't mind at all slowing down to 35 mph through Westphalia, home to one of the state's finest Nortons, and Freeburg, the town with the old general store that still functions quite well in its original 1800s white clapboard building.

But when you roll through Vienna at 35 mph between October and January, it's hard to miss the ranch style house located at the bottom of a gentle slope whose owners populate their mowed lawn with plastic figurines lit with small incandescent bulbs. In October, they set out pumpkins of all sizes, big black cats, and more pumpkins. As December rolls around, they pull out all the stops to celebrate Christmas.

I first noticed the army of Santas several years ago. Oh, there were 50 or more Santas, some clutching candy canes, others with an arm around a reindeer. The next year, there were more. A growing army of Santas and nativity scenes, more reindeer and candy canes all aglow with little single bulbs. Now, in 2010, I think the family of Christmas cheer has pulled out all the proverbial stops. Standing erect on this 5 degree night with snow on the ground and the Geminids ready to pierce the early morning sky, there must be 200 Santas in the front yard of all shapes and sizes, some duplicates, some vintage, but all happy Santas waving to the slow drivers on Hwy. 63. (Don't speed through these towns. The friendly Osage Co. law enforcement officials do not hesitate writing citations to out of town travelers. I've never received one because my car isn't physically capable of speeding....not that I would if it could....)

When such a great effort is made to decorate the outside of one's home with enough Santas to hand deliver gifts to every household in the county, surely the inside of the house is magnificent. These folks in Vienna are clearly chocked full of Christmas spirit, and it's contagious. I tried snagging my mom's 1960s Santa cum reindeer the last time I was in Louisiana, but we all suspect that someone in my neighborhood would steal it from my city yard if I displayed it. That's because I don't live in a German Catholic Ozark town.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Baby, it's cold outside

It's like spring in the Tetons! Highs in the teens, lows to single digits, and snow drifts piling up against the house...

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Christmas Bird Count, Dec. 15-Jan.4

In the 19th century, there was a popular Christmas sport called the "side hunt" where a party would split into two groups and go off hunting. Whichever group came back with the most birds was considered the winner. The tradition worried ornithologist Dr. Frank Chapman, and in 1900 he started what he hoped would become an annual tradition, the Christmas Bird Count. Over 100 years later, the count is still conducted. Now it serves as a method for understanding winter bird populations.

The Audubon Society organizes the CBC. The count takes place in designated circles, a set area that can encompass thousands of acres. Within that circle, birders fan out to count individual birds. So, after a full day of birding in Missouri, bird counts often reflect hundreds of cardinals, flickers and juncos with species counts ranging from 60 on the low end to 120 (usually those circles with significant waterfowl populations). One active count circle in Missouri was established in the 1960s, and data from each bird count is stored online. In this one area, for example, one can see how many pintail were there in 1965, how many brown creepers in 1980, and so on. Audubon uses the CBC information to track changes in North American bird populations; in recent years, for example, hooded merganser populations in New England have soared while grosbeaks have declined.

Christmas Bird Count circles are not common in the Ozarks, but go here to see if there's one around where you live. Don't be alarmed if you see a car full of birders glide past your property and staring at your feeders with binoculars.

Saturday, November 27, 2010


There are enough cedars in Ozark woodlands and glades for every mantle, front door, and stairwell in the uplands to be decked to the nines in greenery this Christmas, even leaving enough cedars for wintering birds to cluster beneath the boughs during cold, snowy, windy days.

Every year, my Native Plant Society chapter gathers in late November after a few months of gathering interesting seeds and berries to make Christmas wreaths with native and non-native plant material. One member is in charge of whacking down cedar branches on her property (find the branches laden with blue berries and you'll be hailed a hero among the group), and the others canvass their farms, fencerows, and private property to build a diverse assortment of paper bags filled with seedheads from many different species. They collectively gather enough material to fill more paper bags than can fit into a small sized truckbed, actually.

Prairie rose rosehips are always nice to have, bright red berries significantly larger than similar fruit from the exotic multiflora rose (which works well in smaller arrangements). Sweet everlasting is common on roadsides in the Ozarks, and the dried flowers bring light to the dark green cedar branches. Lespedeza capitataseeds look great with their mellow brown spikes arranged in clusters. Someone in the group owns a pond populated with American lotus, thus offers lotus pods which we all gravitate towards.

Bright red sumac berries! Sumac grows everywhere in the Ozarks, in old fields, roadsides, in open woodlands. The berries retain that brilliant red all winter, and chickadees will gravitate towards your garland or wreath if you include them.

Don't overlook the grasses. Big bluestem seedheads alternately look gold or khaki, and inland sea oats, little bluestem, and the foxtails are quite charismatic.

(I'll advise against using asters and goldenrods until all the seeds have flown off the stalk; otherwise, the airy and feathery seeds will rain down and scatter on your wreath every time the wind blows or you open the door.)

Of course, after the cedar branches have turned a pale, sage green, and Christmas is a mere memory, it is always fun to dismantle the arrangement and set it on fire, saving the wreath form for the next year.

Before gathering any material from public lands, please contact the land manager for permission or a necessary permit....

Thursday, November 25, 2010

St. James v. Beaujolais

Following a hopelessly sad visit with one parent in the Alzheimer's section of the Louisiana Veteran's Home, we descended on the 85+ degree home of another parent for a ridiculously large Thanksgiving dinner that included Beauregard sweet potatoes prepared four different ways. Before the acorn squash went into the oven, we set the stage for the official tasting of St. James' 2010 Nouveau and George DuBoeuf's 2010 Beaujolais Nouveau.

The judges: Rupert Reginald Vaughn, a.k.a. Daddy, whose primary care physician has instructed him to "drink more red wine." On the doctor's advice, he has distanced himself from his longtime love affair with cheap fishing beer and small batch Kentucky bourbon.
Ronald Teasdale, sister Ashley's friend, an expert in affordable Petit Syrah and all other big, bold, jammy reds from California. I don't know much about him but he's really nice, I like his dog, and he's remarkable for putting up with my sister.
Myself, an enormous casual fan of Nortons, Washington cabernet, anything from the 07 vintage from Cotes du Rhone, but always fawning over Willamette Valley pinot noir.

The referee: Douglas Miller, a lover of treats like peppermint ice cream and chocolate chips, but can appreciate Washington cabs, 07 Cotes du Rhones, and other subtle reds solely because they're "good for" his health. Those enormous Willamette Valley pinots are "too much, too big, too kablammo!" for his palate. Ironically, his palate can detect the faintest hint of mineral, the metallic overtones in sharp whites, and he regularly whips out tasting notes like "the 08 Vignoles from Mt. Pleasant tastes like canned chicken."

Four Reidel pinot noir glasses schlepped from Missouri to Louisiana. Two half full of the 10 Beaujolais, two half full of the 10 St. James Nouveau.

Result: All three judges preferred the St. James Nouveau. The referee commented that the Beaujolais may have maderized in the late fall heat, adding that the same bottle in Missouri on Sunday at Ann's tasted remarkably different, better, more like the 09, 08, 07...etc. Beaujolais Nouveau.

Daddy: The French wine was more acidic, too tart. The buttery aftertaste in the French was nice, but the fruitiness of the Missouri is more pleasing, delicate and more interesting.
Ronald: "Oh boy, that's nice" he said to the Missouri. Elegant, bouncy. The French was flat.
Me: The St. James Nouveau did not taste like a Missouri wine (it must have been the absence of the oak barrel?). I liked the complex fruit character, heavy on the creamy Chambourcin reminiscent of a good pinot noir. The Beaujolais was simple, light, with no finish to speak of.

But the referee? He says the Missouri tasted like "a jumble of mixed grapes" with little definition (which is what it is, a blend). It's not convincing. The French was "consistent, whereas the Missouri was a Frankenstein of flavors with notes of dog." Caveat: there were five dogs in the house where the wine was sampled, including one particularly stinky bassett named Gulliver.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

St. James' Nouveau est arrive!

Last week, on the third Thursday in November, Beaujolais Nouveau made landfall in America. Parties celebrating the wine’s arrival take place throughout the country, usually in the airport hangar where the wine will be unloaded. In graduate school, I learned that these parties pose a great dilemma to middle aged women of a certain set. As overheard in Sendik's in Whitefish Bay, one woman in fur and sleek leather boots to another woman in fur “…well, the party will be held at a hangar, so it will be cold [as winters tend to be in Wisconsin], and it’s a hangar—a big warehouse, really—so do you dress up for it? I mean, it’s a wine party, so do I wear sequins? All black? I just don’t know…is it okay to wear a skirt? But it’s a hangar….” I went dressed in fleece and khakis.

In Missouri, hangar parties welcoming the arrival of Beaujolais tend to be restricted to the big cities with wine drinkers, but Missouri is, actually, one of the few states in America that offer a young, bright, unaged (and fragile) wine much reminiscent of Beaujolais Nouveau! Fancy that, Missouri has her own Nouveau! St. James Winery has bottled its Nouveau for several years in a row, usually restricted to only 100 cases a year. Like the wineries that bottle Beaujolais Nouveau, when St. James’ 2010 Nouveau sells out, they won’t make another until November 2011.

Made with Corps Noir, Rougon and Chambourcin grapes, St. James’ Nouveau blend tastes so similar to the French Beaujolais that I grabbed several bottles for the Thanksgiving table. I packed my Reidel pinot glasses, a St. James Nouveau and a DuBoeuf Beaujolais for a blind taste test among family members at the table. St. James' Chambourcin blend without oak aging should be interesting, and while Beaujolais is a staple on the Thanksgiving table, usually after one glass of sweeter, fruity wine, I switch to a heavy cab that tastes like a white oak. St. James' Nouveau is only available at the winery and for a limited time only.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

When the kids at Camp Zoe go overboard

This is what happens when kids don't know what the Grateful Dead was really about. Even Alyssa complained in 1993 that the Dead followers she encountered at shows were "so uncool." She even had her Volkswagon van broken into by kids looking for drugs. Way uncool.

From the Current River Hills:
Undercover bust burns Camp Zoe fans
By T.J. Greaney Columbia Daily Tribune
Thursday, November 18, 2010

Apparently, not all of the dudes and dudettes swaying to the rhythm at Schwagstock were there to mellow out.

This week we learned that after a four-year undercover investigation, the federal government is on the verge of seizing Camp Zoe, the Missouri farmland that is home to regular Grateful Dead tribute music festivals.

According to a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Missouri, officers from the Drug Enforcement Administration and other agencies have been deep undercover amid the rolling hills and gyrating bodies of Shannon County.

The complaint says that agents witnessed “open sales” of cocaine, marijuana, LSD, ecstasy, psilocybin mushrooms, opium and marijuana-laced food products during the concerts. The sales allegedly occurred while Camp Zoe staff — including owner Jimmy Tebeau — were in the immediate area.

One can only assume these agents were dressed in tie-dyed T-shirts and kicked hacky-sacks back and forth to blend in with the crowd. Buzz cuts tend to stick out at Camp Zoe.

The result of the investigation is that Tebeau, the dreadlocked bass player who co-founded the band The Schwag, is facing the seizure of nearly all of his assets. That includes the property valued by the government at $600,000 and a bank account of more than $100,000.

It’s a stunning turn of events for a man with a cuddly, mainstream image. In 2005, Tebeau was even honored by a resolution in the Missouri House of Representatives saying:

“We, the members of the Missouri House of Representatives, Ninety-third General Assembly, join unanimously to applaud the entrepreneurial spirit and creative skills embodied in the life and work of Jimmy Tebeau.”

But somewhere along the line, the official good will for Tebeau and his merry band of free spirits seems to have worn off.

The federal complaint seeks to seize the property under Title 21 of the U.S. Code. The burden of proof will be much lower in this civil case than it would be in a criminal proceeding. And unlike protections offered by Missouri law, Tebeau does not have to be convicted or even charged with a crime to lose his 352 acres. Under Missouri forfeiture law reformed in 2001, a defendant must be convicted of a felony before the government can seize his or her property.

Federal law carries no such requirement.

Under Title 21, Section 856, a property owner can be charged with “maintaining drug-involved premises” if he or she knowingly opens, rents, leases or makes available a property “for the purpose of unlawfully manufacturing, storing, distributing, or using a controlled substance.”

Columbia attorney Dan Viets, who is representing Tebeau in the case, wondered whether this broad interpretation of federal forfeiture law means Columbia city parks might be subject to seizure. After all, Douglass Park and Stephens Lake Park have been the site of repeated arrests over the years. City Parks and Recreation Department officials must have known there was at least a decent possibility they could be the site of crimes when they were built.

Or, Viets said, what about any other large concert venue?

“When the Rolling Stones played Memorial Stadium, it was full of smoke, and there was no effort to stop it,” Viets said. “Does that mean the feds are going to come and seize Memorial Stadium?”

Supporters of Camp Zoe are raising funds to help pay for Tebeau’s legal defense.

Local music fan Courtney Allyson Joseph spoke for many in an e-mail to the Tribune decrying the police raid: “The owners cannot possibly supervise everyone that attends a festival out there,” she wrote. “Bottom line, take care of the bad people, and leave the peaceful ones alone.”

But not everyone was surprised by the demise of the camp. Arrests at Zoe were fairly common, and the medical staff there is periodically called into service to deal with overdoses. According to multiple accounts, drug dealers would walk among the crowd brazenly hawking their wares during large festivals.

I spoke to a musician who played Zoe for years and said he had become frustrated with the rampant drug use. He didn’t fault Tebeau personally but said his band stopped playing there several years ago when they became convinced the drugs had become too much of a distraction from the music. “We really lost interest, lost faith in the whole thing,” said the musician, who asked not to be named. “Kids were out of their minds on ecstasy or Molly” — a form of ecstasy usually snorted — “it became something we just didn’t care for.”

The musician said the campgrounds had become a playground for a certain type of privileged, suburban “trust fund” kid who abuses drugs with parents’ money. These kids were nicknamed “Trust-afarians,” and, he said, their drug use was shocking.

“We call it getting spongy — just over-drugged,” he said. “It’s really frustrating to play your set in front of a large crowd and they’re so out of it you could literally burp in front of a microphone and they would just keep standing there in front of the stage.”

Urban dwellers

Doug has a relationship with the birds that visit my feeders and brush pile every day. He quietly sits in his office typing away and, upon hearing an alarm call, he pulls back the sheer curtain and more often than not spies one of three free-ranging neighborhood cats: black cat, brindle cat, and this fluffy orange and white cat who really cannot understand that he is most unwelcome in my yard. My urban neighborhood is not populated with cat owners who keep their animals inside like they should, or even drape their cats in collars with bells so that birds, snakes, frogs, and small mammals will be alarmed by their stalking.

Anyway, the birds make an alarm call--usually a chickadee or a cardinal will do the work--and Doug quickly bails out of the office to run madly at the cats to shun them out of the yard. The system works, and since he keeps a close eye and ear on the birds, we have yet to see a damned housecat take even a single ground-foraging and unsuspecting dark-eyed junco. Birds are not adapted to dealing with housecats. Neither are frogs, snakes, chipmunks, deer-footed mice, and the rest of the natural world that fall prey to housecats by the millions every year.

But earlier this week, the birds didn't make a peep, they simply disappeared--a mob scene on the sunflower seeds one minute, and the next, 50 bird heads sticking out like whack-a-moles from the brushpile. Expecting the brindle cat or that stupid orange and white cat, Doug pulled back the sheer to find a Cooper's hawk perched on my ever-burgeoning brushpile, now about 5 ft. tall with Silphium perfoliatumstalks, cedar slash and the remains of a sickly silver maple that drops limbs when the wind merely whispers through the neighborhood. Unsure of his footing, and clearly unsure of what he was supposed to do in this situation of hiding birds ("they were just there!"), the hawk rumbled and stumbled around the brushpile long enough for a few photos, then left the scene. As soon as he left, a groundswelling of white-throated sparrows, wrens, cardinals, doves, juncos (and the rest of the motley crew that hangs out in the yard) came pouring out of the brushpile.

Known as a woodland hawk, Cooper’s hawks deftly fly through trees in search of birds. Leafy suburbs and quiet neighborhoods in cities seem to be fine enough places to reside for these hawks, and certainly bird feeders help them find easy prey. Mourning doves, rock pigeons, robins, jays and flickers--bigger birds--are preferred food sources for Cooper’s hawks, but one study in Arizona determined that their nestlings can suffer from a disease acquired from eating dove meat. These birds have also been known to prey on small mammals like chipmunks, squirrels and bats; western populations depend on small mammals for the bulk of their diet.

Unlike falcons which tear into prey with their beaks, Cooper’s hawks kill their prey by repeated squeezing. It’s also been reported that they sometimes choose to drown their prey by holding them underwater until they stop moving. (Vicious, man.)

Cooper’s hawks are year-round residents in Missouri and are common in towns, especially around bird feeders with hearty populations of unsuspecting doves and jays. The hawk hasn't been seen since that day, but hopefully he's waiting patiently in my chinquapin oak (an 1845 witness tree with fire scars!) waiting on the Western diet of field mice to avail themselves from the abandoned lot next door. He needs to keep his claws off my flickers.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Dressed in khaki

Bald eagles (8) and wild turkeys (25+) outnumbered belted kingfishers (4) on a canoe trip down the Niangua River this week. We had the river to ourselves and wildlife on a 74 degree day, with only a few strands of Mardi Gras beads and a fabric Hawaiian lei wrapped in a buttonbush shrub all that remained of what are surely loud and boisterous summer weekends on this Ozark river.

Bur oaks are common inhabitants along the Niangua, these thick, gnarled fire-adapted trees that produce the largest acorns in North America. We saw only one recently burned hillside on the way to the outfitter in this landscape that historically burned more frequently than any other in Missouri. Someone (not me) extinguished the fire before it reached the river which undoubtedly serves as one of the best firelines in the state. In long stretches of the riverbank, warm season grasses grow all the way through the riparian zone down to the water. Bank stabilization at its finest.

What we see today- barring the stray silver maples still in yellow -we'll see until March. Late fall came too soon this year and the outfitter won't open again until April (early March, if I ask nicely).

Sunday, October 31, 2010


Early October with moving vans on the block. Renters across the street in the official "domestic violence house" who can afford a moving van! Tibetan prayer flags decorated the porch the first day they arrived.

Three days later, pumpkin lights went up in the front window, and three pumpkins of various sizes dotted the steps leading to the front door. My new neighbor threw down the gauntlet. Can she out-decorate me for Halloween? In early October, absolutely swamped with field work, my porch was littered with black oak leaves, acorns, houseplants, and a grapevine wreath with sunflowers and a red checkered ribbon at the bottom. She already had her pumpkin lights up.

Out came my pumpkin lights, orange lights, fall wreath-making materials, three pumpkins (two for carving, one for Thanksgiving).

She carved her pumpkin two days before I even thought about my pumpkin. Her pumpkin has a very nice smile and big, bright eyes. She probably even invested in spooky music to lure in trick-or-treaters.

As night fell on Halloween on my block, the Tibetan prayer flag girl blew out the candle on her jack o'lantern, turned off her porch light (the official Missouri sign that the house is not participating in candy giving), and unplugged her pumpkin lights. Across the way, my house looked like the Griswolds', only for a different holiday.

One trick or treater came by early tonight. I was working, and didn't see the costume or even have a chance to thank her for recognizing the welcome mat that we've laid out for three years. She took one of 6 full size Hershey bars and left.

Moments ago, two teenaged gentlemen rapped on the door. No costume, no "trick or treat," no "hi, neighbor!" but a pitiful sandwich bag held open to hold candy. I gave them each a Reese's and sent them on their way. Hazel stopped by, dressed like a baby, and her mom, the fine neighbor who allowed me to garden in her full sun, stopped by wearing a wig. By that time, Hazel's designated Heath bar had already been consumed. Actually, so has almost all of the Reese's and Hershey bars, with only one of each left on the dragonfly tray. It may be time to douse the light.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


Maybe it was the rainy spring, maybe it was the same combination of climatic factors that also gave parts of Missouri a hearty grape harvest. Regardless of the cause, this has truly been a banner fall for persimmons. Trees in full sun (fescue pastures, banks of recreational lakes, yards...) are loaded with the bright orange fruits that dangle from the leafless branches like monochrome Christmas tree ornaments.

There are those who are hesitant to eat fruit that has fallen to the ground, but persimmons picked off a tree tend to be unripe, and the taste and sensation of biting into an unripe persimmon is unforgettable. When the fruits look like the photo I took above, a little banged up, super tender, they're ready to eat.

In Ozark lore, if you split the persimmon seed in half and it splits into a spoon-like shape, the upcoming winter will be full of snow. If the inside of the seed looks like a knife, winter will be icy and bitter cold. According to the first seed I spit out last month, we'll have a snowy winter in Missouri.

So how to prepare persimmons? Gather a whole mess of them, rinse them off, put them in a colander and mash the pulp through the sieve until only seeds are left in the colander. Use persimmon pulp like prepared pumpkin in pies, cookies, or bread (or like one of my readers, in mead). Persimmons are loaded with vitamins C and A, and have a distinct taste that raccoons, deer and opossums particularly appreciate.

Here's my reliable pumpkin cookie recipe (from New Orleans chef Susan Spicer's bakery) with a persimmon substitute. I don't measure spices and additions, but the rest of the ingredients need to be measured out. You'll need about half a grocery bag of persimmons for one recipe. Please make sure the fruit is ripe before baking....

Persimmon (or pumpkin) cookies
1 c. butter
3/4 c. brown sugar
3/4 c. white sugar
1 egg
1 1/2 c. persimmon pulp (or a can of pumpkin for pumpkin cookies)
2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
spice it the way you like it: loads of cinnamon (S. Spicer writes 1 tsp. but I wing it), allspice, ginger, a little clove, maybe some nutmeg
1 tsp. salt
pecans or walnuts and raisins (again, however you like it. I load up my cookies with debris...)

Cream butter and sugars. Add egg and persimmons to the mixture. Slowly add the dry ingredients. Drop teaspoon sized onto a greased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 for 18 minutes or until they look done.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Fall moves in

The asters are fading fast, but the maples on north and east facing slopes are ablaze in color these days. Super dry conditions and other factors have left much of the Ozarks with a less-than-spectacular fall again this year; even the white oaks are skipping that remarkable maroon stage and turning a muddy brown. The Gasconade River Hills, however, are in peak fall color, and the drive to Hermann is lovely.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Indian Summer, Part II

From the Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri:
Many early explorers in Missouri chronicled numerous accounts of periodic fires....Add to this the overwhelming, universal and pervasive evidence for historic fires as presented in many other documents across North Anerica (McClain and Elzinga 1994, Williams 2000, Nowacki 2002, Vale 2002) and it becomes clear that the influence of fire is the primary explanation for the observed presence of otherwise fire-dependent natural communities distributed across the Missouri landscape. Pyne (1982) stated, "The evidence for aboriginal burning in nearly every landscape is so conclusive, and the consequences of fire suppression so visible that it seems fantastic that a debate about aboriginal fire should ever have taken place."

Fire scars provide valuable records in establishing fire regimes. Guyette and others reconstructed fire histories by tree-ring analysis of red cedar and post oak for various regions of the Ozarks (Guyette and McGinnes 1982, Guyette 1989, Guyette and Cutter 1991, and Guyette and Dey 1997). Their results showed evidence of frequent fires occurring during the last 500 years in the Ozarks. Historical records indicate that most fires occurred in the fall with less frequent fires occurring in the spring and a few taking place in winter or summer.

Fire scars do not necessarily equal fire frequency (Pyne 1984). Whether a tree registers a fire scar depends on varying fire intensities. A fire of greater intensity would kill or consume a tree while less intense fires may not register scars in certain years. Additionally, most of the signature trees that contained fire scar data are today gone due to the nearly complete clearcutting of Missouri's original forests, woodlands, and savannas. At best, fire scar data is only one piece of information in formulating fire regimes, and perhaps offers a conservative estimate of actual fire frequency. p. 20

In March, 2009, we burned half a dolomite glade as part of a larger unit. The fireline went down the middle of the unit. In September, 2009, we burned the rest of the dolomite glade, a piddling little fire that left the landscape looking like it had been doused with RoundUp. The fire went out when it hit the woodline, trickling around in the dried leaf litter but extinguishing immediately when it moved under the treeline.

In May, 2010, we set up six randomly located 50 m. transects on the glade. Three transects were located on the site of the March 09 burn and three transects were set up on the side of the glade burned in September 09. Using a random number generator, we plotted six .25 m2 quadrats along each transect. We recorded and assigned a cover value to each plant located in the quadrat. The results of the survey indicated that the relative importance value and floristic quality index of the quadrats located on the side burned during the growing season were higher than the same values in the transects on the side burned in the spring. Below you will find two tables. The top table is the analysis of the transects located in the area burned in March 09. The lower table is the same analysis of the transects located in the area burned in September 09.

The scale of this research is small. I fully recognize this. I am happy to report that a graduate student will be conducting a similar though much more extensive study throughout the next two years (we just completed the fires on the growing season plots).

The area burned during the growing season responded well to the fire, with a higher forb count and slightly higher FQI than the area burned in the spring. Burning available fuels during the growing season in Missouri is not destructive to the landscape. The fires that occur in Missouri during the growing season are not on par with late April fires--woods seldom if ever burn in Missouri during leaf on (barring drought conditions).

From Paul Nelson, the father of Missouri ecology, comes this:
"The Mark Twain NF is conducting growing season burning for two reasons: first, as a means of most effectively combatting vigorous woody regrowth resulting from decades of tree farming, and second, because we choose to emulate growing season fires. One major conservation restoration approach described in the 2005 MTNF management plan is the coarse filter approach to ecosystem restoration. This comes at a time when it's not possible to answer all the myriad of "effects" questions raised by hundreds of interest groups regarding proposed management actions. The approach is to base restoration on what we already know about achieving desire conditions for healthy ecosystems and emulating the historic disturbance regimes by which ecosystems evolved. I've always believed land managers would not sway far off the mark by emulating fire (and other processes), even the absence of studies. DNR had no data nor baseline research when it took a bold chance and commenced a burn program at Ha Ha Tonka nearly 30 years ago. Imagine all the scientists and managers screaming about burning woods back then. This is certain. It's an extraordinary fact that Missouri's 40 million acres of fire-adapted ecosystems is today reduced to scraps of small remnants. I would think that anything we can do to increase fire on the landscape would have extraordinary conservation outcomes. Missouri's best woodlands, glades, and prairies -along with their diverse biota- are owed to the restoration of fire regimes. The Mark Twain NF implements prescribed fire on 30,000 of it's 1.5 million acres each year. That's about 0.6 of 1% each year. Pitiful. I can't believe we are risking anything given we otherwise have so much former fire adapted landscape remaining unburned. Surely, the species those concerned about find refuge elsewhere. For detractors of naturally occurring fires, we suppressed two wildfires due to lightning just this past season. Finally, we, and you, don't burn vast amounts of acres during the growing season. Why would we want to suppress the burning of 20 to 90 acres during late summer within a 5,000 acre burn unit? That's not extraordinary nor extreme."

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Norton Wine Travelers in Missouri

Charming people, the Norton Wine Travelers, who travel the country in search of great Norton wines. They visited Missouri a couple of weeks ago for a relative's wedding but also to visit some of the wineries in the Ozark Highlands. They visited the Ste. Genevieve area, Durso Hills, Twin Oaks, and countless others, even setting up their vintage camper on site at some to wait for the opening hours of the tasting room.

I'm constantly updating my list of wineries in the state that produce Nortons based on the Norton Wine Travelers' sleuthing efforts. See here for their reviews of Missouri wineries, noted in the individual winery journals; look for the characteristic photo of a rhododendron. Not only are the NWTs Norton experts, but enthusiasts of rhododendrons and magnolias. Botanists! Overall, the NWTs are entranced by the winemaking prowess in the state, and their reviews are really fun to read. I particularly like one that noted a "hint of barnyard on the nose...."

Monday, October 11, 2010

Fire Safety Rules from 4 yr. old Lillie

Driving south on I-55 through Mississippi, blackened roadsides dotted the landscape. Mississippi- home to open pine woodlands with highly flammable grass-forb fuels- has posted "High Fire Danger" for weeks in a row. The highway department there has taken the responsibility of burning off roadsides along highly trafficked roads to allay the spread of wildfires started from a rogue cigarette butts tossed out of car windows. Rank grass still exists on the roadsides in some areas, as well as in the in tact pine-bluestem woodlands here, but as we entered the residential part of Hattiesburg where my camp friend Heather lives, the charred roadsides disappeared and big turf grass-filled yards of blooming impatiens and geraniums and pots of yellow chrysanthemums came into view.

(My friends in Southern states prefer to burn pine woodlands during Indian summer because it promotes forb diversity. Heather knows this, and knows that her little smidgen of woods behind the house would really appreciate a little fire, but she also fully recognizes her neighborhood association and the basic laws governing fire within city limits--i.e., residents can't burn woods in the middle of Hattiesburg, regardless of the fuel load.)

There are those precious moments that, as a child, many of us cherish: parents staying up late, enjoying adult beverages with old friends whom they haven't seen in many years, and, as a child, padding out in jammies to the edge of the living room to overhear what they're talking about, possibly being seen by said parent and then scolded, "go back to bed..." after being asked to perform a trick for dinner guests. "Do that thing you do. Play the piano, just one song. And then bed."

We didn't see Lillie that night in Hattiesburg. Heather's kids are so well behaved, I doubt either Lillie or Madeline ever leave the confines of their rooms to sneak up on their parents; they went to bed around 8, maybe 9 that night that we rolled into town with my car leaking oil from a part unknown to any mechanic but a Honda-certified one.

Lillie must have overheard me talking to her mother about fire and her pine trees.

At some point in the night's conversation, I must have muttered to Heather that I had a dream burn unit, a scheme to burn off all the pine woodlands in her neighborhood all at once. She lives in historic longleaf pine savanna country, a landscape I cherish and know well (burn a high quality longleaf savanna in October, a savanna that hasn't been grazed to crap by cows and horses, and you'll likely end up with a landscape chocked with grass pink orchids in April. Great country, pine savanna, good sandy soils and cool little microhabitats associated within). Actually, because Heather was so distracted, I don't even know if I mentioned to her how fun it would be to burn off her neighborhood or if I just kept it to myself.

Nevertheless, the following morning, while waiting for Heather to take Madeline to school, Lillie casually asked me for her crayons. I found markers and colored pencils too numerous to count, so she used those instead.

"I'm going to teach you about Fire Safety. I know all the Fire Safety Rules that my teacher taught me."

Out of the blue, Lillie decided to teach me fire safety rules. Granted, I know fire, I know fire safety, I know fire ecology, I know fire behavior, I know the calculus associated with fire movement, how it moves upslope, fingers into coves, across a broad, flat plain and how one can protect oneself by running to the fire shadow if fire threatens one's personal safety.

Lillie must have heard me talking to her mother about fire. She simply must have come out late at night to listen to me wax about fire and ecosystems and the benefits of implementing natural disturbance factors blah blah blah.

"First!" she tells me emphatically, "don't play with matches!" Crap. I've already disobeyed Lillie's Fire Safety Rules.

"If there's a fire, stay low to avoid the smoke." I wanted to tell her this doesn't work in landscape-scale fires....but possibly in those nightmarish structure fires which I don't ever want to witness or be a part of, staying low is a good lesson. In woodland fires, just try not to be on the side of the fire of the wind direction. Someone has to be over there, so if you're a baby about smoke, be on the lee side. I don't mind smoke. I love it actually-- woods smoke, that is, but if it's a good old fashioned Ozark tire fire or burn barrel full of plastics emitting dioxin and other known carcinogens, I'll run far away. Burning plastics, one of the easiest ways Missourians contract cancer.

"Stop! Drop! and Roll!" she told me, a lesson I first learned in elementary school while absolutely paranoid that my parents' friends who smoked in our house would inadvertently cause a massive house fire (despite our humid weather and persistently wet carpet from keeping the windows open). Having been on fire a few times while wearing Nomex clothing, I think the very last thing one would want to do in a woodland or grassland setting is to roll around in live fuels. Smother the fire with your wonderful leather gloves. Please don't roll around while you're on fire surrounded by rank grass. That's a recipe for disaster. But regarding a structure fire, I see that the same lessons I was taught as a four year old in 1976 remain in place.

I clearly got over my fear of fires as a child, and now see few greater pleasures in life than laying down flames where they belong, burning high quality native ecosystems that depend on fire for their sustainability, ecosystems well outside the city limits of Hattiesburg and miles away from Lillie's bedroom filled with yellow and white ducks.

Indian Summer in the Ozark Highlands

NOAA's red flag warnings and High Fire Danger notices persisted throughout the Ozarks last week, serving as an indicator that historically, Missouri's highly flammable landscapes burned during Indian summer. In fact, thick, rank bluestem on glades and in woodlands and waist high asters and goldenrods burn so well this time of year that most officials are hesitant to even allow rural residents to burn their corn fields for fear of setting the world on fire.

Fires implemented in late October are less likely to encourage a flush of fresh green warm season grasses and spring blooming wildflowers as early September fires do. To revisit an old saw, implementing the natural processes at varying times of the year will help to restore or maintain high quality ecosystems with their full complement of native flora.

Combing through the dog-eared copy of Schoolcraft's journals a few weeks ago, I ran across passages written in early November. Schoolcraft commented that the thick grasses he had encountered earlier that week had been recently burned all the way to the riverfront, "a dreary and desolate place" without firewood or green grass for his horse. As late as the 1930s (evidenced by 1938 aerial photos), thick warm season grasses dominated most of the woodlands in the Ozarks. Down in the White River Hills, trees were so widely scattered that even as recent as the 1930s, travelers would be hard pressed to find sufficient firewood. Prairie grasses and forbs and fire-adapted trees mantled the Ozarks before European settlement, and prairie grasses burn beautifully in October. Prescribed fire during Indian summer may knock back the tail end of blooming fall wildflowers, but will spring life anew the following March.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Close, but no cigar

What's the line? That annoying "road to hell is paved with good intentions" line that my teachers used to tell me when I opted for a long night of playing tennis instead of writing a paper that "I intended to finish it, but didn't..."? That smarmy, preachy line has taken on new meaning for me lately as I've visited almost 20 good, old-fashioned glade restoration projects that were doomed from inception. In fact, some of these restoration projects are proving to be downright destructive.

When we think of glades in the Ozark Highlands, many of us think of areas with thin soils with rock outcrops, warm season grasses, usually south or west facing slopes, areas likely punctuated with chinquapin oaks or post oaks and scattered shrubs like Rhamnus lanceolata and redbuds. Of course, one can't think of glades in the Ozarks without calling to mind the 80 year old Eastern red cedars that commonly occur here, relicts from years of grazing and fire suppression that have served to suppress native vegetation with the thick duff of needles and year-round shading effects.

While glades in the Ozarks are typically characterized as "nearly treeless" openings in usually dry woodlands, most of the glades in the White River Hills, Niangua Basin, and Current River Hills historically possessed widely scattered fire-adapted hardwood species like post oaks and (on limestone) chinquapin oaks. One can see these gnarled 100+ year old trees on in tact glade systems in the Ozarks, but not on some of these more recent restoration areas.

So disheartening. I was casually asked recently about "all the trees" on a glade in the Niangua Basin. Looking over survey records from the original General Land Office Survey, large glades appeared on the landscape as part of a woodland complex, a gentle gradation from a more closed canopy dry-mesic woodland in the bottoms to dry woodland (white oak-black oak-post oak) on the slopes and ridges to large open expanses with scattered post oaks. Gum bumelia grows here, knocked back every few years with a fire fueled by the rich grass-forb mix. So when I heard that the folks working on the glade slicked off every single woody plant, including a twisted chinquapin oak that had likely been there for 100, maybe 150 years, I asked why. No good answer followed.

Glade restoration in the Ozarks is easy. Step-by-step:

cut cedars. stack NOT in big piles but in loose windrows. burn cedars either when green or red needle stage (preferably when there's snow on the ground or the surrounding woodlands won't burn; cedar slash burns spill out a lot of embers, so spotting potential is high)--gray needle stage never gets hot enough and the cedar skeletons stick around forever. apply fire to the glade after the cedar slash is gone. don't pile the cedar slash to reach the moon--the intensity of such a fire often sterilizes the soil, leaving behind nothing but fireweed for many years. don't stack cedars near old chinquapins or post oaks or gum bumelias or even hawthorns. if the hardwoods aren't supposed to be there to begin with, fire will knock them back. no need to chop down hardwoods. simply employ the very natural processes that gave rise to these dynamic natural communities and they'll respond positively. in the early stages of glade restoration, frequent fires may be necessary. mix up the seasonality, the intensity, the frequency of the fire regime. "nearly treeless" doesn't mean treeless.
Photos from Bank Branch, a glade with some cedar clearing exercises in the 1990s, managed with nothing but fire...

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Desmodiums

In early September, setting out into the romantic, heterogeneous matrix of diverse woodland types that make it incumbent upon me to stay in Missouri, I remained in awe of the incredible diversity of woodlands which have been managed with fire simply for their highest and best use. Compare today's woodlands in the nice, frequently burned parts of the Niangua Basin to the original survey records from the 1840s and you'll see what the General Land Office Surveyors witnessed. They soaked their trousers to the knees walking through the thick tall grasses and wildflowers in the woodlands here.

Unfortunately, the GLO survey notes don't include plant lists. If they did, they'd likely be chocked with "Desmodium sp." all over the place. Known commonly as beggar's ticks, beggar's lice, stick tights, or less commonly as tick trefoils, the Desmodiums are those darling little pink flowering legumes with the seeds that stick to your dog's ear hair, pants legs, and most especially and rigorously fleece jackets. Small curved seeds, they're covered in dense hairs that allow them to attach fervently to one's clothes. It takes a knife to scrape them off twill pants, and forget about picking them off fleece. It's a lost cause. Fresh desmodium seeds are pretty tasty--pick them off your clothes and squeeze out the ecru seed into your teeth for a nice treat. (A good way to pass time in outdoor meetings, picking seeds off your clothes and eating them.)

Missouri is home to around 20 species of Desmodiums. Many of them are loyal to managed woodlands, and are often prolific in recently burned woodlands. At the end of the burn cycle, say, around year 5, the Desmodiums taper off, waiting for a fire to trickle through the area again. High quality woodlands can harbor many species in small, localized areas, while degraded systems tend to be populated by one or two dominant species (namely D. paniculatum var. dillenii, which even grows naturally in my urban yard [though managed with fire]).

While the flowers of the Desmodiums are remarkably similar, the vegetative differences are marked and quite distinctive. When first learning Ozark woodland plants, I made horribly crude sketches (because I can't draw) of the Desmodiums with the diagnostic characteristics highly exaggerated, much like the early Etruscan art from the Naples region--the Etruscans valued hands, and hands are hard to draw, so each person was painted with five fingered paddles for hands. One Desmodium has a notably long petiole (D. marilandicum), and D. nudiflorum sends up a flowering stalk from the base. D. glutinosum is a piece of cake to identify, what with the leaves all in a whirl at the top of the stalk. While there are quite a few Desmodium species in Missouri, they're much easier to key out than the Lespedezas (je pense). Don't waste your time trying to learn the very non-illustrative common names since they really don't help much (I just learned tonight that D. rotundifolium is called dollarleaf? I'll never remember it, and I doubt kids learning botany have ever even seen the namesake silver dollar coin).

From a tiny tract of nice woodlands hemmed in by roads, some of the Desmodiums I found by stepping out of my Honda last week: