Sunday, May 29, 2011

Long wait for a sunny day

Last week's spate of rainy, cloudy, stormy, tornado-prone weather almost interfered with well-laid plans to spend a couple of days in the woods. Rotating clouds near Ironton, a tornado on the ground in Ellsinore, quarter-sized hail somewhere on my drive up Highway 8, all of these horrible tornado warning boxes scattered throughout the Ozarks, this past week saw more terrible weather events--not what Missouri needed. The mornings, however, remained cloudy and muggy but clear enough.

We visted an acid seep this week to find the past-its-prime flowering stalk of showy orchis and the leaves of Habenaria clavellata. Carex bromoides grew along the side of the waterway (pictured right), thick tufts that resemble prairie dropseed. The discussions here pertained to classification: Is it a fen or an acid seep? Few of the calcareous fen plants and more of the acid seep plants were there. Carex crinita was there, but no Lysimachia, no grass of
Parnassus. Rudbeckia fulgida, a seep and fen plant, grew on the banks of the stream. Some in the group remained on the fence--it has characteristics of both. Considering its proximity to acid seep country around Ste. Genevieve, the regal fern/sensitive fern dominance and sandstone substrate, deep down it was decided this was an acid seep. But it could also be a fen.

In the uplands, good woodland plants are in bloom, like the pale pink Monarda bradburiana and Asclepias quadrifolia. If you're lucky, you can still catch the tail end of yellow lady slipper orchid blooms.

Dolomite glades are erupting in Echinacea paradoxablooms this week, and the tail end of the Indian paintbrush bloom cycle remains a bright spot on glades. Summer is finally here, and soon enough, katydids and fireflies will begin their ritual on early summer nights as we set up camp on an isolated gravel bar to gorge on perfectly prepared s'mores.

Friday, May 27, 2011


Scrambling through deep, muddy tire ruts of veritable lakes on the old Forest Service roads, the four wheel drive truck seemed more like a secure tank than a late model Ford. But upon arrival at the cleared field, we opened the door to the morning's suffocating humidity and a cicada chorus reminiscent of the Dominican Republic. It wasn't even 10 am and the woods were alive with cicadas, thousands of them, so many that the chorus almost hurt one's ears. The Ozark woods sounded tropical.

Earlier last week, I read posts on the Missouri Birds listserve that proclaimed that the cicadas were hatching all over the state. "Alas and alack!" read one post from a fellow Audubon chapter member, "the cicadas are hatching!" Good news for ground feeding birds who are undoubtedly gorging themselves on the nymphs as they issue forth from the pliable soil, not so good news for birders who depend on birdsong for identification. It's the 13 year cicada hatch -going on right now in Missouri- a season to remember. I've talked to at least five people in the past week who regaled me with tales of the last hatch, 13 years ago.

So I went birding this morning, beginning one of four 6 week long woodland bird surveys. The cicadas weren't out at 6:15 am, and they sweetly remained quiet until around 10 (coincidentally, the same time most of the songbirds I wanted to document quiet down). I've been in woods lately at 8 am with an overwhelming chorus, a great force of nature but a true impediment to conducting breeding bird surveys. Is it even possible?

The local newspaper reports that cicadas will continue to call for approximately 6 weeks, the duration of my bird surveys (I like to finish them by the first week of July). Can the cicadas wait to start their chorus until 10 am? Can they not be present at certain parts of the Ozarks, like, those areas where I need to sample woodland birds? Love cicadas, really I do, I think they're gorgeous creatures with their red eyes and intricate wing veins, but I sincerely hope their 13 year festivities don't completely ruin every opportunity for bird surveys for the next 6 weeks...

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

In Damaged Systems

Because I love the Ozarks, I try to share pretty pictures of the Ozarks, nice flowers and landscapes, pictures that I take with a $100 point and shoot camera that's so old the model number and maker's name has rubbed off. I spent the day with trusty fieldmates in typical Ozark woods today, woods with a long grazing history, no fire in 80 years, and woods with a serious deer problem. I don't think I've ever posted pictures of overgrazed/deer problem/no fire woods, probably because they're really quite terrible to see and I try not to spend time there, but considering that there are thousands and thousands of acres of woodlands in the Ozarks that can be characterized this way, I made a conscious effort to photograph them. It's difficult, taking photos of damaged landscapes--what do you focus on in a homogeneous system with no diversity? And at what ISO speed? These systems are closed canopy woodlands with no light, so even 400 didn't allow enough light for crisp photos. My pictures are blurry. And ugly. So I thought I'd share.

We set out today on a wild goose chase, driving from the state's urban centers to Bollinger Co. to look for a single plant that hasn't been recorded in Missouri since the late 1800s. Stepping foot into the unburned overgrazed deer problem woods, you could see the browse line and the monoculture of Desmodium nudiflorum in the understory. I realize this is an old saw, writing about cows and deer and the damage both have caused to Ozark landscapes. But this time the old saw comes with images!

The browse line was evident immediately. Wild azaleas were common here in the dry sandstone woodlands, but none of the plants were the erect shrubs they're supposed to be. The azaleas, dogwoods, maples had all been browsed repeatedly for so many years that the shrubs and saplings were prostrate on the ground, multibranching, vining plants. No white oak regeneration at all, as deer tend to favor white oaks. We passed through the deer hunting camp to get here and saw the deer stand (and ears of corn left behind from illegal baiting). Diffuse hunting alone will not effectively manage a deer herd that is so desperate for winter food that the herbivores do this to an Eastern red cedar:

That cedar will never mature into a full grown tree. Neither will this maple:

A short list of plants that deer do not favor: Gillenia stipulata, Goat's rue, D. nudiflorum, Cunila organoides, hog peanut. When these are the dominant plants in a woodland to the exclusion of a rich heterogeneous matrix of woodland flora, there's likely a deer problem. If there's not a deer problem, then the woods have been grazed to hell by domestic livestock that there may be no semblance of biodiversity left.

But the deer problem can be remedied. The damage caused by 80 years of open range grazing by cows, sheep, goats, and hogs can't be fixed. Soil erosion caused by grazing by domestic livestock is irreversible. We saw grazing damage today, too, of course: chert overburden covered in moss and lichen because there's no soil left to support vascular plant life. Fire can't help woodlands that are damaged to this degree. And deer don't really like mosses very well, so, much like the vascular plants that are unpalatable to deer, moss and lichen will continue to spread over the bare rock that is artifact of a long grazing history, along with the Virginia creeper and the rest of the woodland flora that cows left behind and deer don't like.

So where does fire fit into the picture? Yes, fire remains the most effective management tool for restoring woodlands in the Ozarks. However, in the past few years, I've visited several or more sites that have used fire in an attempt to restore an ecosystem, but either the fire wasn't hot enough to kill canopy trees to allow light to the floor (so no light comes in, nothing grows in the understory) or the systems are so damaged beyond repair and they have a deer problem that burning repeatedly actually damages the system even more. A good example of this second case can be seen in the woodlands at Big Spring in Van Buren--closed canopy woodlands, serious deer problem, so they keep burning off the leaves, nothing's coming up in the understory but a few stray plants, the deer come in to clip those down, the damaged system is also home to Japanese stiltgrass which deer don't like so the stiltgrass spreads even more rapidly than if they hadn't burned at all.

I saw a horrible example of the first situation down in White River country last week--hog wire fence everywhere, dog hair stand of 80 year old red oak/black oak (relicts of grazing), a fire that wasn't hot enough to kill trees (some piddly little January fire that started at 9 am when the humidity was 50% or more). The canopy closed up, and the understory looked like a talus slope in the St. Francois Mountains--devoid of life but for a Galium here and there. Burning off the leaves in a system damaged to such a degree doesn't do anything at all for biodiversity. Pick your sites wisely. I, for one, wouldn't even consider burning the woods I visited today until something was done about the deer problem.

I could go on and on, of course, but it's late. In short, use fire wisely, manage deer, and by all means keep the domestic livestock out of native ecosystems. I hope to never post such horrible photos like these browse line-overgrazed woods again.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

"Music of Nature"

If you haven't been camping yet this spring (or slept with your windowns open), you likely haven't heard the early morning bird song that comes along with this wonderful time of year. Two weeks ago, around 4 am, I was awakened by a lone Eastern towhee perched on a shrub next to my tent. After a few minutes, he was joined by a very loud cardinal, then five more birds singing their early morning songs. Within moments, the surrounding woodlands erupted, 5,000 birds singing from the canopy before sunrise. It's a magical time of year, and Carl Gerhardt and others have captured it in these stunningly beautiful videos of songbirds. See here for short videos with sound, a series titled The Music of Nature. Also, the print of the cerulean warbler is available for sale here.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

On a dolomite glade

It's too early to pull out the sampling tools--the 50m spool, the 1/4 m.2 quadrat tool with my initials on it so no one will jack it--but field season is coming close. In the meantime, recently burned dolomite glades and chert woodlands are the place to be for wildflower diversity this week. Sampling for birds doesn't start until next week, and vegetation monitoring shouldn't begin until the third week of June. After all, half of the conservative plants haven't even sprouted from the burned landscape yet.

But if you go out this week, you'll catch the little guys, the Scuttelaria parvula (look for the tractor seat seed on the stalk and blue flower), Arennaria patula, a neat little low growing plant with a diminuitive white flower, and Leavenworthia uniflora, a four petaled white flower that may be overlooked, but shouldn't be since it's a neat little plant. A strapping Houstonia is pictured, more robust than any specimen I've seen in years.

It's still too early for the charismatic, showy stars, the Echinacea paradoxa and Psoralea tenuifolia, but even today you can see the diversity in the matrix, the rich flora that is associated with well managed and intact soils, burned landscapes, ungrazed landscapes, these pristine places where you can hear field sparrows and prairie warblers, with the Northern parulas and red-eyed vireos in the distance calling from the surrounding high quality woodlands.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Fire return intervals and songbirds

If the general public knew how many surveys of all forms of biota were conducted annually in the Ozarks, if they knew how many hours were spent peering into a sampling quadrat or birding for hours at a time or looking for butterflies and host plants to attain knowledge of populations in a given area, they'd probably start asking for reports, for a status update, for an analysis of all that data collection. Considering that I, too, am a member of the general public, I have made it my obligation to not only collect mounds and mounds of data, but to analyze it and to write reports based on all those hours of fieldwork.

It's time consuming, entering all the veg data into a program that calculates species richness, floristic quality. It's equally time consuming to analyze wildlife data to determine the same set of results--species richness, quality of the landscape based on the conservatism of certain biota that occur there. So each winter, I enter all my data from the field season and have it analyzed. It's so time consuming that I spend most of the winter months (when I'm not setting woods on fire) at my desk, sedentary, lowering my metabolism and getting fat.

I recognize that winter ended a while ago, but just last week (sitting at my desk getting fat) I finished analyzing my bird data from a survey conducted in May-June 2010. This chunk of data was at the bottom of my stack of surveys; all of my vegetation sampling has already been analyzed (deer, fire, no fire, windstorm, recovery from exotics, cedar removal alone, cedar removal+fire, etc.). What's the point of collecting data if it's never analyzed? I guess you could do what my predecessor did: leave it for the next chump. But I'm that chump and I like to see the results of the work.

And so, I downloaded the program that calculates the presence and absence of bird populations, as well as density and probability of occurrences. It's a clunky little computer program, not at all as sleek as my floristic quality index program, but it was reliable, and respectable enough biologists are using it throughout the country. (It's really clunky. Bad programming. Required much more time that it should have.).

My birding project involved comparing two restored glades, both burned for the past 26 years at different fire return intervals. One site has burned every 2-4 years, the second site has burned less frequently, on average every 5-7 years. Both sites had serious grazing histories, as most glades in the Ozarks have. 80 years of open range grazing by domestic livestock was so totally destructive to this part of the Ozarks, I can't believe anyone in their right mind would even consider introducing domestic livestock to these same native landscapes that are already so terribly damaged from the exact same process.

Anyway. The site that burned more frequently (because it's an easy burn, surrounded by roads, and it's an easy way to hit target) lacks the distinctive shrub layer that some glades in this part of the Ozarks now have--relicts of overgrazing, of course, but still a structural component. On average, shrub height on the more frequently burned site was 2-3 m. On the site that burned less frequently, shrub height was 5-6 m. with saplings maturing out of the shrub layer. These sites share a political border, so I wanted to measure the differences in bird populations between management regimes.

The results came in late at night (it took a while to figure out how to batch load all species across all survey sites). I stood there in the office comparing both sides of the political border.

I guess I should have expected such results, but most of my bird survey work has been conducted in high quality woodlands or wetlands. This survey represented the first time I worked on awesome restored dolomite glades surrounded by really crappy, overgrazed, degraded, trashed out woods. It's easy to restore a glade in the Ozarks: cut the cedars, burn the cedars when or before they're red needle, keep the fire going for a few years to control the brush that comes with a cattle/sheep/goat grazing history (therefore, with every glade in the Ozarks). Easy. Woodland restoration requires a greater commitment.

So, which of the grassland-shrubland birds keyed into these glades for breeding and foraging? Across both sides, high densities of prairie warblers, field sparrows, indigo buntings, yellow-breasted chats, Eastern towhees. But I found greater nest success of indigo buntings and field sparrows on the glade that was burned less frequently and had thicker shrub density. Both glades were extremely rich floristically, with an average FQI of 4.8-5.2 for every quadrat. Good conservative plants like Liatris mucronata, Callirhoe digitata, Carex crawei, Echinacea paradoxa, few exotics and hardly any of the old goat barn plants (some of the crotons and arennarias, e.g.) that I find in glades that are in the early stages of restoration.

I stayed up late that night looking at the results of the surveys. I compared them, I ran them through another program, and the results were the same. What concerned me about the results was not the occupancy by grassland-shrubland birds because they're obviously keying into this glade complex, regardless of the fire return interval. Nest success was interesting. But what worries me is the high number of generalist woodland birds that were detected on the glade with the more frequent return intervals. Remember, this was the easy burn site, a glade surrounded by roads and crappy woods and restorable glades, but unrestored glades. The glade nestled in a large landscape of degraded but burned woods had higher densities of the more conservative grassland-shrubland birds than the other site.

Scale. The fire return interval is important for structural reasons, and for the recovery of the grass-forb mix that attracts the necessary invertebrates that songbirds depend on for their life histories. But little piddly 60 acre burn units surrounded by thousands of unburned acres aren't contributing to the conservation of these birds as much as the largescale landscape burns that also encompass trashed out woods do. Across the political border, they're burning crummy woods, yes, but they're burning woods that have some semblance of an understory production that these same birds depend on. Bird feeder birds can be found in bush honeysuckle woods on roadsides. Conservative native landscape birds depend on native ecosystems and all the intricate workings and structure inherent within. Small patch, tiny tract burns aren't the answer to the conservation of declining bird species.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Slow down

There's a special place in hell for drivers who intentionally swerve out of their lanes to kill box turtles; the smashed shells on the shoulder are testament to this cruel and sick behaviour. When I first moved to the Ozarks I was truly horrified to see so many dead box turtles in the road. It's really not that difficult to avoid hitting them (for god's sake), they're not zooming across the road with such rapidity that any conscientious driver couldn't avoid hitting them.

So when I first moved here and commuted from my maintenance shed living quarters to my place of employment, I stopped and moved every turtle I encountered on the lettered highways. I had more time for engaging in natural history then, for recording the first time I saw fireflies each May, when the whip-por-wills started calling in the woods. And I kept track of how many turtles I moved in my little field notebook. By the end of July, I had moved over 300 turtles off the road and recorded 128 dead turtles on the same commute. Oh, it's not the safest practice, slamming on the brakes to move wildlife from the road, but I did it for snakes and toads, too. There was the time when I parked at the crest of a hill to move a turtle, failed to put my emergency brake on, and my car rolled downhill into the ditch. I wasn't accustomed to hills, nor with the various gears in my stick shift Honda. Nevertheless, I moved the turtle, was late for work, and remain grateful to guys with trucks and chains who drive around waiting to pull cars out of ditches.

It's that time of year again when box turtles truck across several lanes of traffic. The poor dears, they're not adapted to living in a world with speeding vehicles and the twisted souls who find pleasure in taking their lives. Drivers should slow down and consciously avoid hitting turtles this spring. The fatalities are surely adding up. Seriously, it's really not that hard to avoid hitting turtles.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

After the rain

The recent spate of beautiful spring weather has brought out a suite of spring wildflowers that will bloom througout May. Look for seepy dolomite cliffs and boulders for the intricate flowers of columbines and Heuchera. Buttercups (Ranunculus fascicularis, pictured) can be found all over in dry woodlands, while white violets (Viola striata) are normally seen in moist creekbottoms and more mesic conditions.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

After a late March fire

Stepping gingerly on the mossy rocks to cross the roaring stream, I clutched my Audubon Swift series binoculars for dear life. I spent part of my insurance check from the storm on them, and I depend on them for their precision, for their clarity, two features which aid in the positive identification of those gleaning warblers high up in the canopy. Miraculously, I didn't slip. On the other bank of the stream was the end of the fireline, the same spot where I blew out my torch after a beautiful, raging late March fire. March 25th, to be precise.

I listened to my woodland songbird cds for several days before, with the dulcet tunes of Louisiana waterthrush, American redstart, blue grosbeak, and warbling vireo stuck in my head. They're all in a row, the songs introduced by a somber man's voice, "Louisiana waterthrush..." I'm rusty every May, always going back to the
Peterson cds to sort out the songs before I hear birds in the woods. As I turned off the ignition that early morning, drank the last of my third cup of coffee, I heard the churlish "tuk!" of a summer tanager and hoped I was ready for spring birding.

Yellow throated vireos, Northern parulas, worm-eating warblers, even a wood thrush in an open stand of white oaks- all these closed canopy, forest interior birds. Oh, they're all lovely creatures with remarkable songs, cool little aerobatic actions. We had burned this tract for the first time in over ten years, way off the mark for the gold standard--3 burns in 10 years. But I want to hit the fast forward on the restoration of this dissected, rich, old growth landscape. Widely spaced pines populate the broad, flat ridgetop; I saw the fire rip through the flats, and expected more response from the ground flora, just as I expected more open woodland birds on my morning survey. A crop of Solidago ulmifolia, lots of bare soil, some panic grasses, but this is not the bluestem-prairie plant pine woodland that it should be. When pine woodland flora is suppressed under thick, dense pine duff for 12 years, I am reminded that it takes a while to recover.

As the birds settled down after the morning cacaphony (all quiet but the red-eyed vireos, white-eyed vireos and parulas), I looked downward. The super steep hillsides with lovely old growth chinquapin oaks and a dog hair stand of 80 year old black oaks (relicts of open range grazing) were chocked full of quality forbs. Coreopsis palmata, Echinacea simulata, tons and tons and gobs of Silene virginiana. Scattered patches of warm season grasses dotted the ridgetop, and as far as I could see, bright patches of dappled light. We killed trees on that fire, as most spring fires are wont to do. If we didn't kill all the maples and out of context red oaks, we put them in the hospital long enough to have ample light to the woodland floor. I remain a firm believer in the power of spring fires for woodland restoration efforts. Woods wouldn't be so flammable in March if they weren't meant to burn.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

In harm's way

I fell apart last night over fish and wine at one of my favorite outposts in the Ozarks. Sitting there at 7 pm, clearing skies revealing a beautiful sunset, I knew the levee at Bird's Point was scheduled to be breached at 9. I've been upset about it all week, of course, but last night was the proverbial tipping point. The original plan was to breach the levee less than 1/2mile from the last bastion of biodiversity in Mississippi County. A National Natural Landmark, a designated Natural Area, it's own Important Bird Area status, the only stand of original bottomland hardwood forest that was spared the brutal logging and ditching of the whole region.

After I finished audibly sobbing at the table, after the restaurant manager visited my table to offer a fresh bottle of wine on the house (which I refused. I guess he thought I was sobbing over the turned wine I was first served? And how the bartender refused to take back the vinegar and replace it with a new glass? That's worth being angry over, but not crying over.), I had to stop thinking about it.

I cordoned myself off today, away from anyone who could give me news about the woodlands and forest down there, and I spent the day birding in the Ozarks. If the blast of the levee, the sheer force of the river water didn't level the remaining trees, then the sediment and standing water will undoubtedly impact the fragile floral diversity. I've seen the impacts of levee breaches, and I've seen the impacts of significant standing water on delicate wetland ecosystems that depend on periodic, short lived flooding events. The rich flora associated with these systems that have adapted to flooding and drought at varying intensities and durations cannot survive under standing water for months on end. If the area in southeast Missouri is buried under several feet of sediment, the flora will not survive. Not even Aster pilosuscan live under those circumstances. Unnatural flooding such as this doesn't help ecosystems, and with the Mississippi River so impaired by locks and dams along its entire length (barring at Commerce, Missouri), no natural flood cycles--the kind that replenish the soil and that provide standing pools of water for wetland plants-- will ever occur there again. There is nothing natural about the levee breach.