Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Relief in 92 degrees

Never mind that my drinking water was so hot I could have made instant oatmeal in my Nalgene bottle, or that no cloud availed itself to us all day on the south facing slope, thereby causing much sweat production which invariably resulted in salty beads dripping into my eyes and onto my sampling pages. I was so happy to be away from the truly sad, overgrazed, destroyed public prairies of southwest Missouri, so thrilled to be back at my first Missouri love, the beautiful Ozark glades and woodlands chocked with so many conservative forbs that 9 hours in the blearing sun was like Christmas morning. Every .25 m2 was a delight.

Officially, I'm measuring fire effects on glades this season, but really I'm tracking restoration, following glades from the first year after a major cedar cutting exercise to 3, 4, and hopefully more years out. Maximizing biodiversity (what cowboys call forage) is the priority. I'm happy as a clam to be situated so close to a site so full of native integrity that across all glades, forbs with a CC value of 6 or higher constitute 73% of the total vegetation cover. Awesome site. My ashes will be scattered there.

Actually, today's sampling of 4 paired 50 m transects was particularly fun since each transect area on the glade was burned at different times of the year--long strips burned in the growing season 2010, fall, winter, and spring. Looking out across the glade, it doesn't look like a Frankenstein of management regimes. Today, Houstonia nigricans, Echinacea paradoxa, Heliotropium tenellum and Lobelia spicata bloomed across all transects rather uniformly. The peak blooms of glade coneflower occurred a couple of weeks ago, but it was refreshing to see seedheads crashed to the ground with mature seeds hitting the soil. But the fine detail of quadrat sampling revealed a different story, with certain grasses only showing up in two transects, certain forbs in others, and similar variations. I haven't run the analysis to determine the Relative Importance Value across all physiognomic taxa (but I will, and soon. I hate it when data piles up.), but the results should be fascinating. Of course, I've been a firm believer in a diverse fire regime since Day 1, so the analysis won't convince me to burnat different return intervals, different intensities and different seasons--I know that. But it will be interesting to see the vegetation data.

Not wanting anyone to break into my car and steal my sweaty data sheets, I brought them into my 86 degree bungalow for the night for safekeeping. Here's a sample from one small quadrat, with the numbers representing cover values. (This will be scroll over-worthy to most people, but this is for the three people I know who will appreciate it):


Almost every plot of the day was like this. Isn't it fun?

So, I lost three pounds of water weight today on the glades, but tracking recovery from the years of extractive abuse (light here, actually, but cows in the 1950s) in such a rich site makes up for the 25% cover values of ragweed and 75% trash goat barn plants in the prairies in the Osage Plains.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

On Grass

I spent the week crouched down in prairie grass sampling weeds and plants associated with overgrazing. Because of the long days in the Osage Plains, I missed the first week of Wimbledon altogether, watching only a few minutes of a Sharapova match over eggs and dry wheat toast in the early morning at the Super 8. Sampling vegetation on high quality prairie natural areas used to be fun, always looking forward to the next of 50 quadrats to see what cool plants would show up, to see how many species you could assign cover value to in order to ultimately evaluate the floristic quality index (the cholesterol count, as it were) of the prairie. But this week was different. And I missed American Ryan Harrison (who was trained by my tennis coach in Louisiana) play Ferrer on the smooth grass courts.

Owners of our public prairies in Missouri are destroying these last remaining remnants of our state's natural history by overgrazing with livestock. The once heterogeneous matrix of conservative prairie plants are now dominated by grazing increasers like Helianthus mollis, Vernonia baldwinii, Verbesina helianthoides, Pycnanthemum tenuifolia (neither cows, bison nor deer like either of those two), and the weediest of them all, Solidago gymnospermoides. True, they're all prairie plants, but all unpalatable by grazers. In the absence of the rest of the matrix, these spread like wildfire, or like Festuca eliator and Lespedeza cuneata in an overgrazed prairie.

Out of 8 other prairies I visited in the late afternoons following my long days sampling, I only saw two prairies with any integrity. Neither of them are or have been grazed in recent history. Of the other grazed sites, even those that have not seen a herd of cows for a few years are irreparably damaged, much like the site I sampled. Historically, these ancient systems were not dominated by a handful of generalist prairie plants. Today, under the current trend in management regimes, the biodiversity once associated with high quality prairies is disappearing. Once it's damaged, it doesn't heal itself. If it did, we'd have much more prairie left instead of little postage stamps hemmed in by the grid system of roads--100 acres here, 240 there.

I missed a week of tennis exuding my negativity in every plot, grousing about the sericea with the 25% cover value and the simplicity of sampling. I normally don't work in goat barns or old crapped out fields, so a lot of these plants (like Poa pratense and the young plants of Festuca eliator) were new to me. To add insult to injury, no one in the area carried flour of sulphur so my entire body served as host to millions of chiggers as I sat in the weeds and big bluestem. I look like a victim of a pox, covered from neck to toe in weeping red welts. I also sampled a patch of poison ivy (another grazing increaser with no real place on a prairie) and ended up with a mess of ticks. So I have chigger bites, tick welts and poison ivy. Awesome Assistant to Missouri's Best Botanist (Jacob, or Justin #2) told me I should really just rock the look, show off my red weeping welts rather than cover them. Here's a close up of my leg today:

Much like the mattresses and ugly recliners that line the streets in my neighborhood each Sunday night before Monday trash pickup, I have bugs. It's really all the beauty I can handle.

And so, having seen in the course of one week how the Osage Plains are being homogenized into something completely different than what the purchasers originally set out to protect, I'll try to turn my thoughts to the fast play of grass court tennis. I remain grateful that Roddick is out, Sharapova is in, and my favorite grass court-playing bartender will switch all televisions to tomorrow's match as I drink mediocre wine and try in vain to forget for a few hours that the prairies that were once so full of life and diversity will soon be a mere memory.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Extra light for long field days

The summer tanagers were so chattery this morning that I had to search long and hard for a location away from them to listen for any birds other than summer tanagers and Eastern wood pewees. I finally found an area with Northern parulas, yellow throated vireos, a prairie warbler, but the tanagers showed up again, perching on a branch right above me. I stood there watching him sing for quite a while, in awe that such a remarkably beautiful animal would be so comfortable in these burned woods. Summer tanagers are the signature bird for this site, as common as swollen deer ticks on a country dog, but I love them--brilliantly colored and beautiful animals. Deep in the throes of field season, I spend my morning hours visiting my bird transects and afternoons sampling vegetation in recently burned woodlands and glades. Grateful for the extra daylight, I can comfortably sit on a glade from noon until 7 pm if there's a gnarled chinquapin oak for shade every once in a while. The tanagers call all day.

Among my sampling events this field season is a great project that involves vegetation monitoring transects at (what we call) Stumptown, a 10-15 acre glade unit that one year ago was not a glade, but an impenetrable thicket of even-aged 80 year old Eastern red cedars (relicts of grazing). With a winter full of snow events and inclement weather, my colleague and his staff managed to clear the area of its cedars and burn them on site, leaving behind a glade with no red needle cedar slash, no cedar skeletons, but a thick herbaceous layer recently freed from cedar cover and duff. Bird response to the restoration has followed suit: field sparrows, prairie warblers, Eastern wood pewees, and yellow breasted chats are the most commonly encountered, with chipping sparrows coming in at 5th place.

Monitoring fire effects in high quality sites like the ones I work in is just as much fun as setting fire to the very same woodlands and glades each fire season. With the extra long day lengths, I can accomplish so very much more than in winter months when the sun sets at 4 pm. Hooray for field season, hooray for high quality fire-mediated sites in the Ozarks!

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Goodness of Legumes

On the Great Plains, the land of open vistas and widely spaced little towns, it's difficult to find native vegetation mixed in with all the smooth brome. I returned today from a week in Sand Hills country--I went looking for native prairie, not reconstructed, not recreated from who-knows-what in the seed mix, but native prairie. I found one, a tiny little tract of land owned by an Audubon chapter, but it's been hayed so much that diversity is extremely low. Among the native plants I found were a lovely penstemon (pale blue, tall, unpalatable to cows), Western wallflower (also known from the Western Ozarks on a glade by the same name), one single Lithospermum incisum (also known from few high quality glades in the Ozarks) and not a single legume.

Driving back along I-70 past the suffocating overstocked dense woodlands this morning, I already missed the long views and dramatic skies of the Sand Hills. But I didn't miss the truly depressing and depauperate prairies that have been irreversibly damaged by overgrazing by domestic livestock. It is irrelevant to compare Missouri's high quality native prairies to the Great Plains, and I remain stalwartly opposed to the concept and practice of introducing domestic livestock to any native landscapes in the state. The damage is done out west, the prairies of the Sand Hills are clearly not "resilient and ever-changing," and neither are our prairies and native ecosystems in Missouri. If prairies were indeed so resilient and ever-changing (and able to withstand cows for extended periods over the course of 100 years), we would likely have more native prairie in Missouri and throughout the Great Plains. Prairies remain the most endangered ecosystem in North America largely due to our wanton abuse by grazing cattle to grow protein.

Nice vistas on the Great Plains, no diversity except on the one or two stretches of rural roadside that hasn't been treated with 2-4D and cows, and even there you had to comb through the exotic cool season grasses.

It's neither here nor there regarding the Ozarks, a discussion on the Great Plains and native prairies in Missouri (until I write about Tingler Prairie Natural Area around Licking, the last high quality prairie in the Missouri Ozarks), but I was struck by the complete absence of native legumes in the Great Plains. So my thoughts turned to the site I was birding in last week where I was surrounded by at least 20 species of legumes.

If you burn a tract of woodlands in the Ozarks that has not seen fire in many years, and that tract of woodland isn't chocked full of buckbrush pre-fire (grazing increaser), a good sign of recoverability is the immediate appearance of a host of legumes. Desmodiums, native lespedezas, Psoralea (pictured)... if these show up in high numbers the first spring after a fire, there's a good chance that the woods weren't damaged beyond repair by overgrazing. As restoration continues, the rest of the suite of quality native forbs should appear, namely the asters and goldenrods. But if the fire program has continued for many years and legumes, asters and goldenrods aren't showing up in high numbers, there may be little hope for true restoration. Cows love native forbs, especially the highly nutritious legumes. Just ask any range manager in the Great Plains if they have the rich suite of native legumes, goldenrods and asters on their prairies.

Cows aren't the only culprits in the degradation of native ecosystems in the Ozarks. White tailed deer are responsible for turning decent enough woodlands into veritable monocultures of Desmodium nudiflorum in some parts of the region. The nutritional value of tasty legumes is high, and some (now the more conservative ones) are more palatable than others. D. glutinosum is another legume that deer don't seem to prefer, however.

Nevertheless, quality legumes and other forbs remain good indicators of ecosystem health. Without them, ground feeding animals like bobwhite quail wouldn't have nutritious seeds to forage. Unfortunately, in overgrazed landscapes, the legumes are usually the first plants to disappear. I didn't see a single one in an entire week on the Great Plains. I can't wait to return to my birding site next week.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Among the Cicadas

The sound is primordial, that constant drone of the 13 year cicadas that begins every morning just after dawn. Doug likens the chorus to the sound of the alien spaceships in the 1953 The War of the Worlds --an eerie resemblance, actually. It sounds like summer sunsets in Louisiana to me.

I wasn't the only one concerned with the ability to conduct point count bird surveys this summer, I learned recently. Some of the most astute birders in Missouri also expressed their worries of hearing chipping sparrows and black and white warblers amid the undulating sounds of thousands of cicadas. So I set out early this morning to determine if it was even possible to hear early morning birdsong with the cicada chorus.

Not only was it possible, but I had one of the best birding mornings I've had all season. Gobs of Eastern wood pewees, summer tanagers, prairie warblers, chats, chippies, turkeys, the whole suite of great woodland birds, they were singing loudly enough to even determine a general distance from my location. The cicadas were talking among themselves all around me at dawn, but they were not calling in the nice 600 acre burn unit--it was as though the area I was birding was immune to cicadas. I could hear them in the distance, but their chorus certainly didn't interfere with my ability to hear little chip notes of indigo buntings.

Cicadas signal summer in the deep South, much as fireflies usher in June in Missouri. I've recently overheard several conversations about cicadas (while camped out watching tennnis) in which someone at the table asks the rest of the table "what's the purpose of cicadas?" to which I would like to ask all of them, "and what is your purpose?"