Friday, April 29, 2011

Into (but out of) the Ozarks

Under the steel gray sky and undulating midstory of flowering dogwood, the recently burned forb-dominant understory looked neon green. As a great distraction from the potential flooding of southeast Missouri, I spent time in the Lincoln Hills, an area located in the southeast region of the Central Dissected Till Plains. Drive north from the ever-burgeoning St. Louis, and you'll end up here, a landscape largely dominated by farms (taking advantage of all that loess deposited during the last retreat of the glaciers) and miles of urban sprawl. But amid this rather bleak north Missouri landscape, there are 6,000 acres of land that have been under intensive fire management since the early 1980s. And it shows.

Spring green against blackened soil was never so green. The woodlands here have the structure and the prairie plant diversity of a typical (burned) Ozark landscape: tons of white oaks, Helianthus hirsutus, spring ephemerals like phlox and goldenseal, Camassia scilloides and hoary puccoon, bird's foot violets in the woods and on the glades. That's right, glades in North Missouri. My stunning (and huge) Geology of Missouri wall map shows that this area is overlain on Mississippian-Meramecian Formation, the same bedrock geology of Ste. Genevieve proper and parts of south St. Louis, but not a common bedrock in the Ozarks. So the Ozark woodlands in North Missouri aren't a true outlier to the Ozarks, per se, not dictated by the bedrock. They're different from the Ozarks, but they're somewhat the same as the Ozarks.

Due to the intensive fire management and a fire history that has spanned decades, the floral diversity and structure can rival some of the best sites in the Ozarks. Over half of the butterflies documented from Missouri have been found here, and approximately 30% of all known vascular plants in Missouri can be seen in the diverse natural communities of prairies, glades, sinkhole ponds, wetlands, and beautiful, beautiful dry mesic woodlands. The only remaining native intact prairie remnant outside of St. Louis -called the first prairie town- is here, maintained with fire since 1976.

Threatened by suburban encroachment, this Lincoln Hills gem harbors high deer numbers, though they're being managed as best as they can be. Deer particularly like the fleshy green leaves of Veratrum and the distinctive Tradescantia virginiana, the spiderwort common in the LaMotte sandstone country around Farmington; this spiderwort is different from the more common Ozark plant, T. ohiensis. T. virginiana flowers low on the plant and weeks earlier--similar to the St. Francois Mountains T. longipes. But the deer haven't obliterated the dogwoods here. Dogwoods galore in the hollows and midslope where fire behavior isn't as gnarly as on the dry ridgetops. One colleague asked if dogwoods were fire-dependent, considering there were so many large (and small) dogwoods here. In a landscape managed with fire, tree, shrub, forb, sedge and grass species sort themselves out through time. Say, over 30 years. Dogwoods are found where they belong, in the mesic conditions (in those deep loess soils), and, like in the Ozarks woods managed with fire, not so much on the dry rocky ridgetops.

In this 6,000 acres rests the largest state designated Natural Area north of the Missouri River. Considering that over 95% of north Missouri has been completely converted to agriculture or urban lands, it's remarkable and truly refreshing to see such a large, heterogenous landscape with great species richness across all biota being well maintained with such care and diligence. If you want to see what parts of the Ozarks looked like before the age of extraction began (and you're not in the Niangua Basin or in the scattered remnants of high quality, fire-managed sites that can be found throughout), go to the Lincoln Hills for 6,000 acres of it.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Hunting morels

I have friends who take weeks off from work to hunt morels. These are the folks who send out photos of serious hauls--80, 100, 120 morels a day. I'm not one of those people, but when I'm in the woods during morel season, I walk slower than usual, and certainly wouldn't pass one up. Morels come out when the first asparagus arrives at the Farmer's Market, and together, they make the perfect Easter dinner.

Nevertheless, the last time I found morels was after a 580 acre burn. The fire was almost over, the ring almost circled, and I was instructed to hold my fire where I was. I walked back along the line to see how much had burned. There, in the blackened, smoldering landscape were 20 morels poking up in their creamy splendor. I didn't see them before the fire, as they were buried under 3 years of leaf litter. I quickly plucked each of them, put them in my fire bag, and went back to work. I went back to the site a few weeks later and found more, all rising up out of the freshly burned phlox-warm season grasses-perennial wildflower dominated burn unit.

But that was three years ago.

So last week, while my friends were canvassing the ragged out Missouri River bottoms (and coming out with lots haul of morels), I went to the nice woods. Just last week, reports came in that they were out, in droves. By the time I arrived, I could see cracks in the soil. No rain, no warm days, no new morels. I wasn't there to necessarily look for them, but a casual survey didn't reveal a one. On mentioning this to my local guide, "oh, we have professional morel hunters that come here all the time..." (this accounts for the stray vehicles parked along the gravel road in low moist drainages, as well).

No morels, but a boon of spring wildflowers. The bluebells are quickly losing their elegant flowers, and the buttercups (Ranunculus harveyi, pictured--good dry woodland plant) are just now bursting into bloom. Spring ephemeral season moves along so quickly in the Ozarks, and I'm grateful I've seen it, even if it meant not harvesting a bunch of morels in the dog hair stand of cottonwoods.

Friday, April 22, 2011

In burned woods and glades

I would be hard pressed to list more than 20 sites (with any integrity) in the Ozarks that were burned during the 2010-11 fire season. On my commute home, I could only gin up a list of 8 sites that I plan to visit this growing season, so I padded the list in the event I somehow forgot about a part of the Ozarks I don't normally visit.

Yes, fire season is over until late July when growing season fires commence on glades in certain parts of the Ozarks--think St. Francois Mountains, White River Hills, those glades totally surrounded by dense, overstocked woods that won't burn when leaves are on the trees. What a bust. Not only were the weather conditions erratic, certain fire districts and weather forecasters issued burn bans and red flag warnings at the hint of dry conditions and winds 9 mph or higher. Of course, some of the warnings were warranted, like that time when the humidities plummeted to single digits and it had been 6 days since rain. But considering that many fire prescriptions are written with optimum windspeeds of 10-11mph to allow fire to move across the broad flat ridges, some of the burn bans were unwarranted and served as roadblocks to implementing a natural disturbance regime that has been practiced responsibly in Missouri for over 30 years. I kept track of all the burn bans that were issued when there were 10 inches, 5inches, 22 inches of snow on the ground. I also kept track of all the burn bans and warnings that were issued when it was actively raining and not even napalm would ignite the saturated fuels in the Ozarks. I moved to Missouri because I thought prescribed fire and resource protection were institutionalized here. I'm not convinced they are.

Anyway, a bad year for fire. Worse than 2009 when it rained and snowed all fall, winter, and spring.

So, as usual, I tend to migrate to those high quality parcels of land that did see fire this season. Among the stars of the week were a huge population of a dolomite glade fern, Adder's tongue fern (Ophioglossum englemanii) left, shooting stars, and the whole suite of spring glade plants that always look so fresh and young and new after a fire, yet their rootstocks are ancient and deep.

And woodlands! I revisited the site of a woodland restoration project from the 1980s today to find hordes of warblers and a landscape chocked of high quality forbs.

If you can only go out to one of these burned dolomite glades once a season (for some reason), wait until Memorial Day for an explosion of yellow glade coneflowers. I need not be reminded that biodiversity is maximized when the very natural disturbance processes that gave rise to the rich ecosystems to begin with are implemented once again.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


I remember the morning on the Jack's Fork River when my colleague yelled at me from the top of the hill. He went out to look for morels after I gave up my search empty handed and returned to my queenly spot in the front of the canoe to drink wine.

"You're not going to believe this..."

I quickly climbed back out, and reached the crest of the ridge. I saw it, too, among phlox and the last of the anemones, a red buckeye in full, breathtaking flower. In Shannon County, no less. Known from the southeastern part of Missouri, red buckeye is the signature plant for Crowley's Ridge, the gem of April woods, and I hadn't seen one since I left the Bootheel. I certainly wasn't expecting a red buckeye on a float on the upper Jack's Fork.

Back home, I checked the 1963 Flora of Missouri to find that red buckeye is known from Carter and Oregon counties, down in Eleven Point River country, but in 1963 the hidden little cove along the Jack's Fork wasn't listed as a known location for red buckeye. What a gem. No morels that day, but a red buckeye, box turtles eating mayapples, and riverbanks chocked full of flowering bluebells. April on the upper Jack's Fork is truly magical. The early spring green of white oaks and hickories make the scenery even better than in fall.

No less stunning, however, is the yellow flowering Ohio buckeye, the more common Missouri species. In the Ozarks, there are four varieties of Aesculus glabra, and two forms of one variety. Taxonomy can be a little annoying, especially when you're in the field with someone who's not very familiar with Ozark woodlands and he insists on thinking that every plant could possibly be one of thousands from international boundaries, even though it's pretty obvious it's one of 6 species that always show up in Ozark woodlands. But I was intrigued by the range map from the 1963 Flora to see the distribution of the different forms and varieties. If I wasn't on a casual meander with my dad last week, I may have taken note of the underside of the leaves, the color of the bark, the number of leaflets on each stalk of the multiple buckeyes along the trail.

It wasn't until later that weekend that I learned that we were in a location where three varieties of buckeye can appear. Alas, I didn't take note of any of that. I just took a picture of the flower, which is in full bloom and very pretty. I don't know which one I saw, and for some reason, that frustrates me a little. Not too much, just a little.

Here's the range map and the truncated guide from Steyermark 63 to the different buckeyes you'll find in the Ozarks. Click on the illustration below to enlarge the photo to see the miniscule little tick marks that represent the different varieties and forms, then take note what the characteristics are below and you won't be in the position I'm in tonight:

A. glabra var. arguta: Leaflets mainly 7, rarely 8-11, or 6; leaflets mainly 1-3 cm wide

A. glabra var. glabra: Leaflets mainly 5, rarely 6 or 7; leaflets mainly 3-8 cm. wide

A. glabra var. glabra f. pallida: most common form in Missouri. Lower surface of mature leaflets densely or lightly hairy

A. glabra var. glabra f. glabra: Lower surface of mature leaflets green, bark dark gray

A. glabra var. leucodermis: Less common, lower surface of mature leaflets usually strongly whitened or pale; bark pale or nearly whitish

Buckeyes like fire, so you'll find them in woodlands that have been managed with fire. They're commonly found in more mesic conditions, often along streambanks, on north slopes in dry, rocky woods. Lucky for the buckeye, deer do not find their twigs very palatable; we logged only 5 plants out of 109 that were clipped off by deer in one tract of deer-problem woods I surveyed this February.

The seeds are big, burly, and brown and resemble a doe's eye (or a buck, of course). Julian Steyermark tells us that it may not be a wise idea to feed buckeyes to children (but research shows that fox squirrels manage eating them just fine):

The shining, large, dark brown seeds are poisonous when eaten by children, livestock, and domestic animals....The seeds are rendered harmless after boiling or roasting, and were eaten by Native Americans as a starchy meal after being roasted.

Steyermark continues in his entry on red buckeye that the seeds were likely a precursor to Rotenone:

The powdered seeds and crushed branches of A. pavia, when placed in ponds or slow water, have been used to catch fish, which become stupefied and float to the surface.

How sporting!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Ball o' snakes

I saw my first-of-the-spring garter snake in February. I hadn't seen one since November when 5, 8, and, in the end, 10 snakes slithered over our feet as we sat around the fire pit. In 2009, when I first discovered we had a brushpile full of garter snakes, I told everyone I knew. Oh, it's not that I haven't seen snakes before, but my urban dwelling is pretty darned urban with no corridors to nearby natural areas, just a grid pattern of streets and neighbors who use power tools and mowers every weekend.

But garter snakes in Missouri are pretty well-adapted to urban living, so my discovery of them was no surprise to my friends who grew up in St. Louis. One of my St. Louis friends grew up in nearby Berkeley, and he writes this about the garter snakes in his neighborhood:

"I must have picked up two hundred of them, all writhing in a mass, picked them up by the handful. I threw them in a pillowcase to bring home to show my mom. When I opened the pillowcase to show her, she immediately screamed, told me we couldn't keep them in the house, so we took them back to the old lot and let them go. There must have been thousands of garter snakes in Berkeley in the 1960s."

Old abandoned houses with brush and tall weeds are great places for garter snakes in urban Missouri. I'm not a squatter living in an abandoned bungalow, but I've been managing a brush pile-log pile-kindling pile for several years now, and the snakes love it. I was actually told last night by a former director of a state government agency that I'm violating some code with my brushpile, but he added, "ah, hell, nobody ever comes to your neighborhood to check on things like that...." My coworkers won't even come to my neighborhood unless I allow them to pack heat, which I won't (unless it's a pellet gun for the stray cowbird who arrived this spring).

Anyway, garter snakes are among the Missouri snakes that remain out of their hibernation chambers for the longest period each year. In the Ozarks, they emerge in March and remain active until November. On warm, sunny winter days they may come out for short periods. Garter snakes are highly variable in their color forms. In Missouri, we have two subspecies of garter snakes, the eastern garter snake and the red-sided garter snake. The dividing line for these subspecies is not the Missouri River, but a diagonal that runs northeast to southwest from Clark County in the Dissected Till Plains to McDonald County in the Elk River Hills. The eastern garter snake is in St. Louis and the red-sided garter snake is in Kansas City.

Breeding normally commences in the spring shortly after they emerge from their winter quarters. Multiple males form an aggregate around females, and much writhing occurs. St. Louisians may have seen this behavior before in those old lots in Berkeley with hundreds of animals in one small area; I feel certain that herpetology-minded folks have, too, seen this, but I witnessed it for the first time this weekend while setting out broccoli starts. First, there were three snakes. Two more snakes showed up. Five more came out of the brushpile and two came from the compost heap to add more calculated chaos to the scene. At one point, there were 20 snakes in a tangled mess. (So much for my hopes of having American toads in my yard.)

As I understand, they breed in large congregations and then disperse throughout the general area. The young are born in late summer or early fall. According to The Amphibians and Reptiles of Missouri, litter sizes can range from 4 to 85 individuals, and one individual was documented with a litter of 103 young. My marginal urban neighborhood (which I love) that even government regulators are scared to visit may harbor as many garter snakes as the city of St. Louis one day!

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Finding the glades

We didn't set out to look for morels, but if we found morels on our slow walk through the bottomland woods, we certainly wouldn't have passed them by. We didn't find a morel all day, but we were out there for another reason, to verify the presence of dolomite glades nestled deep in a landscape that may not have been canvassed by Natural Heritage Program biologists (lo, those many years ago, when the Heritage Program was a viable and important part of natural history in Missouri). No Heritage records exist for these glades, so the two of us set out to see if they had any merit, or, if they had been so overgrazed that any restoration work would be wasted, better done elsewhere.

Stepping across a little creek, we encountered a suite of spring ephemerals: anemones, bloodroots, and the scrappy form of a flowering Prunus mexicanus, native to the Ozarks. Following the lead of my trusty fieldmate, I crested to ridge to find, indeed, a dolomite glade--a beat up little glade peppered with cedars from the years of domestic livestock grazing and fire suppression, but a glade with bird's foot violets and Indian paintbrush. Eyes cast downward the whole time we stepped gently across this glade that may not have seen humans in a very long time, we agreed that the damage was done. The many years of grazing by domestic livestock--cows, sheep, goats, hogs--left a lasting impact. The soil layer was barely there, horribly eroded from the repeated trampling by livestock. The hog wire fence was still in place, and one side, the soil was in better condition than the side that must have held the animals. But open range grazing, which was part of the Ozark landscape for 80-100 years, had a detrimental impact on this glade -and every other glade we visited that day.

Heading through the beat up woods to Glade #2, the soil was in better shape and species richness was higher. If you've ever conducted vegetation sampling on a Grade B or A dolomite glade in the Ozarks in June, you'll encounter a little straw colored twig with paper thin elongated seedpods: Draba cuneifolia. It's a diminuitive little spring blooming plant, but I'd never seen it other than in it's June form. I found it the high point of the whole trip, in flower! It's not a particularly sexy plant with its simple little white flowers, but Draba cuneifolia! This one is not to be confused with Draba verna, another small plant that remains loyal not to glades but to the gravel parking lot natural community type.

In a fast and dirty assessment, we determined that with 6 hours of chainsaw work and one fire (with cedars cut, preferably when there's snow on the ground so the crummy surrounding woods won't burn), this second glade would be holding on just fine for another 20 years. Glade management really doesn't require a lot of work if the soil layer is there and some semblance of native species richness exists. Show me a glade that's been grazed to hell by cows and riddled with the exotics that come along with grazing histories and I'd probably tell you to choose another battle.

Once again, I was reminded this week, as I am every week when I visit compromised ecosystems in the Ozarks, that domesticated livestock have no place in native Missouri landscapes. It is unthinkable that anyone in their right mind would promote livestock grazing of any sort in our native ecosystems that have already been irreversibly damaged by the very same process.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

First of the Year

It's always a great afternoon when I come home to find this bird in my mailbox:

The logo is a slicked up version of the header to The Chat, the newsletter from the Columbia Audubon Society, one of the oldest chapters in Missouri. I love the illustration of the yellow-breasted chat, the secretive but noisy and bright yellow bird that represents the shrubby oak layer at my favorite tract of Ozark woods. Love chats, and just love the simple line drawing.

But aside from my affinity for the logo, I always look forward to opening the four-to-six page newsletter to find two full pages of fieldtrips hosted by different members of the chapter. This month was no different--Columbia Audubon Society will be birding at Prairie Home, at their own properties around Columbia, in Columbia parks and throughout the general area. This group of enthusiastic birders remains a bright spot in the Columbia conservation community. As much as I love the chat, I adore the CAS chapter. I've never met more earnest folks.

This month's newsletter was particularly interesting with a great article by one of Missouri's best birders and CAS board member, Edge Wade. Having birded in the Gulf Coastal Plain longer than I have in Missouri, I needed a guide to the waves of warblers. In the Gulf Coast, hit the barrier islands in March or early April to see every darned wood warbler around, as they land exhausted on loquat shrubs or gnarled hawthorns. But the waves of migrants in Missouri are on a different schedule.

Edge offers a short list of which warblers to study in early April through mid-May. The first bunch of warblers to come through Missouri includes:

Northern parula, Yellow throated warbler, pine warbler, palm warbler, cerulean warbler, black and white warbler, prothonotary warbler, and Louisiana waterthrush,

I picked up my FOY parula in early March, actually, way down in the Gulf states where the Tradescantia was already in bloom. But today, I set out into central Ozark woods to listen for the rest. Black and white was there (the one who sounds like a squeaky bike tire), and two yellow throated warblers were out. I also picked up field sparrows on a glade and a couple of parulas in the dry limestone-dolomite woodlands. Check in here for regular updates of bird sightings from all over Missouri.

Edge adds that later in the migration, one can expect to see:

Nashville warbler, black throated green warbler, yellow warbler, worm eating warbler, Swainson's warbler, Kentucky warbler, and the striking hooded warbler.

If you're interested and in the general area, new members to the Columbia Audubon Society are always welcome. Check out the CAS website here for a list of fieldtrips and guest speakers at the monthly meeting. Happy birding to all!

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Drink Local Wine 2011: Missouri!

The annual Drink Local Wine Conference was held this weekend in St. Louis. Among the highlights were a taste off between California and Missouri wines. The results are in and Adam Puchta's Norton won in the red category and Chaumette's Reserve Chardonel won in the white category.
Here's the official word:

We need a name for the award that wines that win the Twitter Taste-off receive, like the Drinkies. Or the Locapours. Or even the Freds.

Regardless, two Missouri wineries each won two of the four awards at Saturday's Missouri Twitter Taste-off. Adam Puchta Winery's norton won best red and its norton port was named the People's Choice winner, given to the wine chosen best in the Taste-off by the consumers who attended. Chaumette Winery's reserve chardonel was named best white and also took the Media Choice award as the favorite of the media who attended.

I like the Drinkies Award, personally. And I'll have to give Adam Puchta another chance, maybe buy an 06 Norton and drink it only from a Norton glass. I've had a lot of Nortons in Missouri, and, well, I'll just have to try this one again or something.