Saturday, July 30, 2011

Considering Norton an Age-worthy Wine

I usually age Nortons for five years, but have had 7 and 8 year old Nortons (from River Ridge in Commerce) and they're super mellow. In honor of the state grape, an article from the online wine magazine Palate Press to give you the history of Norton grapes. Read here.

Friday, July 29, 2011

"Up to my eyeballs in an Ozark stream"

If I lived closer to a spring fed Ozark river, I'd be a fixture there. I'd find a four feet deep scour hole and stay there for hours at a time. Or I'd be like those women who sit in low slung plastic chairs all sprawled out in the water reading a paperback as paddlers go by. If I lived closer, I'd visit the river everyday.

The much needed weekend is here, and it includes a special occasion! July 30 is the date that Norton was named the state grape; Rolling Meadows Winery (near Warrenton) is having a weekend-long festival to celebrate. Visit a moist streambank where vegetation is still lush and green and make a toast to Norton!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Desiccating heat

Blue jays perch on the back of the Adirondack chair as they wait their turn for a refreshing splash in my birdbath. Mouths agape, they're as thirsty and hot as the western Ozarks these days. Average daily temperatures hover between 96 and 102, but work must continue, so I return each day to the woods and glades for vegetation sampling, coming inside around 6 pm everyday drenched in sweat and covered in seed ticks, usually weighing three to four pounds less than I weighed in the morning. It's still fun, of course, but sad to see my quadrats look like this:

Glades typically exist in dry to almost xeric conditions--lacking shade, often situated on south or west facing slopes, exposed bedrock and, if the glade has been grazed to hell by domestic livestock, lacking any significant soil structure. This week, glade plants have become crunchy, which makes it challenging to identify some of the smaller grasses and wilted dicots. Among the glade plants that have managed to remain green, erect, and to offer flowers this week are plants of the genus Liatris and Silphium. Several individuals of these genera possess thick, rigid stalks and leaves with stiff, rough hairs. Liatris aspera (not yet blooming) is smooth, with none of the water hoarding ability as its relatives, and can be found with flower buds along the stalk and only slightly wilting leaves. I snapped a crummy photo of a Buchnera americana on a glade, since when I return next week it will be shriveled to black.

Unfortunately, this high pressure system is too strong for the jet stream, and according to one report these excessive temperatures and drought-like conditions may be the new normal in Missouri. If this is true, and if the weather patterns are in fact due to climate change, the time is now to make our ecosystems as resilient as possible, to encourage water holding in deep rooted perennial plants, to try to repair the soils from years of disturbance from overgrazing by domestic livestock, and to restore the ancient fire regimes under which our landscapes adapted. There's little to nothing we can do to stop the rapid march of climate change, honestly, but we have the ability to implement fire.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Seed tick season

It all happened so fast this summer. One day I'm traipsing through a woodland filled with knee high pale purple coneflowers picking off the occasional monster tick from my off white field trousers. Today, in the same trusty field trousers, I casually look downwards on my hike through buckbrush woods to see 2 million little seed ticks spreading across my leg. I take all the precautions (tape up the ankles with duct tape, spray nerve toxin DEET on my trouser ankles and shoes), and wear off white trousers to see them easily. But late July through the first frost in the Ozarks is high time for seed ticks.

I recall the first encounter with them as I hiked through my favorite woods. They're imperceptibly small, smaller than black pepper flakes, and seed ticks have a rather miraculous ability to find their way all over one's body. (I think they burrow through seams.) My ankles were taped up, I was sprayed down, but that night in my hotel room I manically scratched and clawed my ankles until I saw them up close with my handlens: seed ticks are 6 legged little tick larvae seen best under a 10X handlens. And there were hundreds, thousands of them all over my legs. The only relief came when I jumped fully clothed into an over-chlorinated pool and stayed there for 20 minutes or more.

Of course, with the deer overpopulation problem exploding across the Ozarks, we can expect even greater tick populations in the woods. Burn and thin your woods, restore them to a luxurious grass-forb mix and deer move in to take advantage of nature's food plot unless they're kept in check. Even in unburned woods, however, there are still too many deer and, therefore, ticks. With the cultural penchant for hunting, I never ever thought it would be possible for the Ozarks to have a deer problem, but they do.

Imagine over 200 years ago when the early explorers first set out across the Ozarks and encountered seed ticks. Several writers mention seed ticks, and write eloquently about the irritation they cause as they bite and burrow into supple skin. No pool of chlorine to jump into, and no Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Castile Soap that kills seed ticks instantly. The Ozarks have always had ticks.

Seed ticks are the recently hatched tick larvae and possess 6 legs. Ticks have a fascinating life history: One female can lay 3,000-6,000 eggs in leaf litter. After the eggs hatch, the larval stage (seed ticks) will wait for a host while perched in large clusters at the end of plants. They will then find a host, become engorged, and molt to become an 8 legged tick nymph. Same story again, after the nymph feeds enough and is engorged it will molt into an adult. When the adults feed enough to become engorged, they will mate. After laying her thousands of eggs, the adult female tick will die.

I recall my undergradauate ecology professor who, like myself, grew weary of hearing students ask "what's the purpose of [insert insect here]?" This year, I heard people grousing about cicadas. My esteemed professor explained that natural history does not have a purpose, but a function and relationship. So, what's a tick's purpose? Well, their function is to reproduce, just like humans (but not me), and their relationship is to provide a food source for other creatures (especially quail). Their annoyance to humans is just lagnaippe.

Seed ticks can be avoided by staying in tidy mowed lawns from late July-late October. If, like me, you're not scared to go in the woods when there are bugs around, tape the trouser ankles, don't wear shorts in the woods, and enjoy this remarkable time of year when the brilliant yellow flowers of four species of Silphium are blooming throughout the Ozarks.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Joy of Sampling

By noon on Tuesday, the sweat poured so freely from my entire body that I had to skip entire columns on my sampling pages because they were soaked from where my arm rested while writing in the column before. Every day that passes, more sedge fruits shatter, making them harder to key out. Sampling season only lasts for a couple of months, so everyday this week (despite the 105 degree temperature reading from the Kestral) I was on a glade, in a woodland, or in a fen squatting down recording plants along 50 m and 100 m transects. It's such an invigorating time of year that I don't even notice the heat. The joy and delight of combing through a quadrat is simply unmatched.

Among my sampling sites is a woodland and glade restoration project; cedars and 80 year old black oaks were cut and burned on site. As I've noted several times about the same 3,000 acre area, forb diversity is extremely high throughout. Just as I was finishing the woodland transects, I discovered a population of 20 Hexalectris spicata outside of my plots. A truly gorgeous orchid, this was the first I've ever seen.

I met a beautiful new sedge this week in a wet mesic bottomland woodland: Carex muskingumensis, an enormous, classy member of the Ovales, a Carex tribuloides on steroids (not pictured). A few of the fen plants stumped me, including a totally blasted out eleocharis; I spent almost 5 hours on deer exclosure transects in a virtually treeless fen. It was so much fun I could have stayed out there for the rest of the day, but I had to go to the equally awesome (and treeless) glade.

If I've learned anything this week besides the natural integrity of some high quality native ecosystems, I've seen that the Ozarks have a serious deer problem and I have amassed quite a collection of really nice refillable mechanical pencils that I have inadvertently jacked from the field.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Busting through yellow breasted chat country

I'm in Week 6 of my bird survey of super high quality awesome burned woods. Today I visited the flatwoods, last burned three years ago as part of a 2,000 acre burn unit. The fire burned upland flatwoods, dry and dry mesic sandstone and chert woodlands, and, as discovered today, a fen and a few big glades. We're at the end of the burn cycle here (the years elapsed between burns), a cycle that averages 3 to 5 years for quality sites (with dedicated managers); the woodies have a chance to grow up to a barely penetrable thicket in that time. So it was today, as I broke through the chest high post oaks and blackjack oaks with warm season grasses and super high quality forbs that soaked my torn khaki trousers to my knees.

If I've learned anything in this three year bird survey, I've learned that my observations mirror those of my inspirational predecessor, Terry Callahan, who surveyed the same site for an entire burn cycle to determine how populations change following a single fire event. I've never met Terry Callahan, but I've referenced his work in powerpoints, in published articles, in conversations, in presentations...if I ever meet him face to face, I'll hug and kiss him like he's an old summer camp friend. Rumor holds he's not working in the field anymore, which is a great loss for all of us.

Callahan's study in the mid 1990s showed that bird populations in burned woodlands are dynamic, that they change through the course of the burn cycle. The first year after a fire, indigo buntings are as common as deer ticks in deer infested woods. As the early seral stage sets in, the prairie warblers and yellow breasted chats move in with higher numbers than before; they take advantage of all the fruit bearing vines and shrubs like blueberries and raspberries, not to mention the insect life that comes to a rich herbaceous layer. At the end of the burn cycle, with the seral stage reaching about 6 ft. tall, summer tanagers, Eastern wood pewees, and chats dominate the landscape.

I love early seral situations in burn units and I love chats. I think chats have the silliest, most erratic and charming call of any other bird. I love that they're big and garrulous, that they crash through the shrub layer like a bull in a china shop, and yet they're warblers. My favorite bird, the chat, is the signature bird for the beautifully restored sites I work in, as they breed there along with summer tanagers, field sparrows, prairie warblers and Eastern wood pewees. The yellow breasted chat is the logo of my beloved local Audubon chapter, so I love chats even more than the rest. Prairie warbler is a close second.

Chats love the shrub layer. And today I was chest high in shrub layer post oak/blackjack oak woodland, all of which is surrounded by a rich understory of little bluestem, blueberries (ever so tasty), and an incredible assortment of high CC value perennial forbs. I went cross country through the shrub layer counting chats and tanagers, stopping for a long while to watch a beautifully mottled summer tanager perched on a 200 year old post oak sing his "chuk-burrrr" over and over.

When I sample these sites, the areas I'm birding where I also take vegetation notes, I make specific notes on the basal area, shrub density, and ground cover. Following the same sampling protocol that I have followed since I first moved to Missouri, I have to recognize that my total cover values in chat country will be higher than 100%. You see, beneath the stacked layers of post oak shrubs rests a super dense ground flora chocked of forbs, high quality forbs like Aster turbinellus, Penstemon tubaeflorus, every Desmodium in the woodland book (D. nudiflorum pictured--the flowering stalk is connected to the plant, but flowers almost a foot away from the base of the vegetative plant. Cool.).

[The Desmodiums are just opening up in Ozark woodlands, the plants that most people call "stick tights" because of the bean shaped seeds that stick to your trousers as you walk through August woods. The remarkable suite of summer wildflowers are in full bloom now, including everyone's garden favorite, Echinacea purpurea, found in low lying bottomland woodlands.]

One of the main reasons the area I'm working in is so rich with bird life is not just because of the small area of shrub layer woodlands I'm sampling, but for the 3,000 to 5,000 acres of restored woodlands all around them. Leave the early seral woodlands and the rest of the area looks like this:

No subdivisions in the way, no highway-sized bike trails so favored by citizens in my town, or even powerline cuts, just thousands of acres of restored woodlands. Fragmentation is a killer for bird communities, as the other studies I've read in recent years have shown, as well. Restore small patch woodlands, say 734 acres here, cross a recreational lake and restore another 300 acres, and you'll pick up more parasitic cowbirds than on a pasture. Oh, the good woodland guys are there, but in much diminished populations, and vying for viable nesting opportunities with hundreds of cowbirds in the mix. From my own studies, I've seen that large scale landscapes are the only way to protect declining songbird species. 40 acre burn units and areas surrounded by housing developments, highways, superfluous powerline cuts can sustain some nesting woodland birds, but not to the same degree as the larger areas, areas managed with fire at regular intervals, areas with integrity in the ground flora. As long as I live in downtown with my own little upland flatwoods (that I manage with fire)--surrounded by an abandoned lot and a daycare and a handful of other Craftsman homes, I'll never have a yellow breasted chat on my property. I have pewees and catbirds, but no chats. With my local city council cutting up every piece of natural green space in town for more trails (nature be damned), I probably won't see them anywhere in town anymore. At least I have great woods to visit in the Ozarks.

Saturday, July 02, 2011