Friday, February 18, 2011

Back in Black

Last week, as temperatures climbed to the 40s, we joked about the mounds of soot-covered snow, suggesting they wouldn't melt until July. Fire season seemed like a dream to most of us, as the heavy snow melts it saturates the ground and the once fluffy leaf litter morphs into one continuous (unburnable) flat mat. Yesterday's 72 degrees, 40 mph wind gusts, 28% relative humidity under clear blue skies magically melted the snow and dried the 1 hour fuels throughout the Ozarks. Actually, in the St. Francois Mountains, fuels are a little too dry, with large 1,000 hour fuels burning to ash in an afternoon. May fire season begin in earnest now.

It's challenging, spending day after day inside because the roads haven't been cleared or 10 inches of snow will mandate your feet get wet just walking through the woods. Winter's not over, and more snow is expected in the coming weeks, but this week marked the first opportunity to visit one of my favorite restoration areas--a nice chunk of post oak-white oak woodlands with glade inclusions that were burned in November while I was visiting Jack before his death at the nursing home in Louisiana. No one wanted to tell me the area was burned because I love burning this tract. The gratification that comes from treating a once-damaged landscape with fire in an effort to coax it back into richness is unmatched. So no one told me the unit was burned without me, they just expected me to discover it one day. It's been under snow since December and this week was the first opportunity to see it all slicked off by fire, a clean landscape waiting for the warm spring rains to bring life anew to the understory. I'm sorry I missed the fire, not at all sorry I spent the time with Jack, and glad the area burned.

Unlike in other parts of the area, the dolomite boulders are significant features here--scattered throughout as though someone tried to bring a plow to the upper reaches of the Ozark dome. Extremely rugged landscape, plant diversity is characteristically high here. Big stands of Gama grass can be found throughout the woodlands and glades, sandwiched between the rest of the warm season grasses and conservative forbs like Helianthus occidentalis, Aster oblongifolius, and Liatris cylindracea. We're still playing the Winter Botany Game in Missouri, but I saw the very first Anemone in bloom in an ancient, sheltered sinkhole full of snow. High quality Ozark woodlands are sexy any time of year, any time of day, and especially after a winter burn. Clean slate.

The spring peepers are out with their high pitched chirping, and buds on the dogwoods are swelling. Turkeys are pairing up, an the owls are active. Warm February days can sometimes encourage little brown bats to break their hibernation, as some members of the species tend to congregate near cave openings in winter months, more attuned to natural weather fluctuations that way. Mourning cloaks and moths flew about today, along with resident field sparrows and Missouri's wintering yellow-rumped warblers who will be on their merry way north soon to make way for our breeding prairie warblers who are as common as ticks in my favorite woodlands.


Scott Laurent said...

Wonderful observations. Most people wait for the flashy blooms of spring but the subtle hints of late winter are like gold when found!

Allison Vaughn said...

I can't agree more!