Wednesday, October 19, 2011


The clear blue skies and wind gusts of 20 mph signaled the cold front hours before it moved into Missouri. As the temperatures dropped by 10, 15, maybe even more degrees, the houseplants moved inside, the porch filled with black oak leaves, storm windows came creaking down and the asters were in full bloom.

The true sign of change came the next morning when I stood at the window drinking coffee and spotted my first-of-the-year dark-eyed junco hopping on both legs to feed on a Eupatorium seedhead. Another junco came into view in the traditional bird feeding area next to the brushpile and heaps of Christmas tree skeletons. Stepping outside to fill the thistle feeder, I heard the dulcet little call of a white-throated sparrow and couldn't remember the name of the bird for several seconds. I haven't heard "Oh, sweet Canada Canada Canada" since early May, after all. Moments later, I dressed and drove directly to the hardware store for seed and suet. Winter bird feeding season is here.

You can follow the happenings in Missouri's birding world by visiting Birding on the Net: Missouri , where you can read short notes about all the robins gorging on cedar berries this week, the Ruddy Ducks at Eagle Bluffs. Visit any Missouri establishment with a television to follow the movement of the Cardinals.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Maligned maples

Sometimes, a little knowledge can be dangerous. Take, for instance, the case of land managers and Eastern red cedar. The rightful place of these stately gnarled trees is bluffs, cliff faces, places where fire doesn't travel. When cedars exist in native woodland and glade settings, they're usually artifact of overgrazing and fire suppression. So when well-intentioned folks working on ecosystem restoration projects see fit to remove all cedars from the landscape, including those three hundred or more years old craggy cedars on bluffs, it's usually because they don't know any better. If you've ever been on a boat in Table Rock Lake around Branson, you must have seen the cedars on the bluff faces there--many of them are hundreds years old and should not be removed. They're supposed to be there.

Similarly, there are those who despise sugar maples because of their supposed fire intolerance. If you visit an area that was, according to witness tree records, a post oak-black oak-blackjack oak woodland and it is now a monoculture of sugar maples, I agree--there's a problem...a problem likely related to land clearing at settlement, and an active fire suppression program that allowed for a monoculture of sugar maples to rise up from the once fire-mediated ground. But sugar maples are a naturally occurring part of the fire-mediated Ozark woodland system in certain settings. Those settings are most often perched on Burlington limestone bedrock and usually associated with a white oak dominance.

Visit the few remaining old growth woodland tracts outside of St. Louis or Boone County and you'll see terrific woodlands of white oaks that resemble missile silos and big old sugar maples. Sugar maples are a natural part of a limestone woodland in certain settings, like the woodlands I visited this week when all the maples were a brilliant yellow and the Solidago petiolaris was in full bloom. Maples and cedars by their own right aren't to be loathed unless they're out of context with the historic character of a landscape. In some fire shadow/protected dry limestone woodlands, sugar maples are right at home, existing in an area burned on a five year rotation for the past 30 years, and in full fall splendor these days.
(By the way, here's a gruesome photo of a horrific browse line in the maple-dominated woodlands in Cedar Co. Nothing in the understory but sedges, and a perfect browse line in the canopy. It's preposterous for anyone in Missouri to claim we don't have a deer problem in the Ozarks.)

Friday, October 14, 2011

End of Harvest

Another harvest season has ended for Missouri wineries, with Meramec's interesting heirloom Stark's Star grapes picked just last week. I've had the wonderful opportunity to talk to a few vintners lately to find out what we should expect of the 2011 vintage. Word on the streets of Hermann reported a fine season with cooler nighttime temperatures making up for July's heat and drought conditions. Meramec's talented owner is optimistic about this year's harvest, as well. The cooler nights saved the vintage.

We're nearing the end of Drink Local Wine week, an event that has spurred online conversations about how local wine should not be avoided, how it has changed through the years from the clunky super sweet junk to the rich, supple wines we have today.
The 06s are drinking very well now, if you can find them. Some wineries are selling their 09 Nortons which should be tucked away for a few years. I've tasted a number of 09s at local tasting bars and, truthfully, they're simply not ready. Norton needs time in the bottle. 3 years at the least, 5 and 10 years ideally. 09 Chambourcins are bright and lively and very drinkable.

My own desire to make Norton may be a reality next growing season. Home winemaking was a New Year's goal two years ago, but I've been too scared to do it, fearing I would make some junk that I wouldn't drink. Oh, and the cost of equipment requires serious planning when living on my salary. Ever since that first broken Italian conversation with the little old man grape grower who made the wine at our villa in Baiae-Cuma (near Naples), I've had a desire to make wine. But I need to be successful so that when I slam on cheap California wine that is as elegant as rat urine, I can add "even I can make better wine..."

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Fast forward

I don't think I stopped thinking about what I saw today until I hit the gym for a truncated run around the track (and only then because I was peeved that the gym was so crowded tonight. I'm never there this late.). I spent a very long day in the heart of the scattered chert and igneous woodlands in the St. Francois Mountains, a cloudy, dreary day, but one spent in utter awe. I returned to the site of the May 8, 2009 derecho, an area that wasn't salvaged and was left in its natural state following a natural disturbance so great that NOAA has added "super" to its now historic name. No one in Missouri had ever heard of a "derecho" before that warm day, but those impacted by it now know what it looks like when it travels through intact woodlands. If the tree didn't bend to the ground, it was uprooted. Thousands of trees crashed to the ground in the Ozarks that night.

So I went back to the site with a long fire history, an area that was in decent enough shape before the derecho--a plant list of over 900 species that rivals any other assemblage in the Missouri Ozarks in species richness. Much of the site is dominated by white oak-black oak, with scattered pine. There's a rare-to-the-St. Francois Mountains dolomite glade here with lots and lots of Spiranthes magnicamporum (the one with the overwhelming scent). Hog damage is here, too, of course. The area impacted by -not damaged by- the wind event, however, is reminiscent of an ecosystem restoration 20 years in the future. It would take many years for fire alone to have this impact, and dragging skidders into the fragile understory for largescale thinning wouldn't have the same beneficial effect, either. The assemblages here have changed, nay, reverted to the historic records of the area: post oak, scarlet oak, pine, with an understory of black gum, hazelnut, and vaccinium. Oh, the many occurrences of "hazel undergrowth" in the GLO land survey records of the early 1800s in the Ozarks...and I had never seen it before, hazelnut dominant in the understory.

But the prairie grasses and forbs in the woodlands! Aster patens is thick. Why, these prairie plants were there all along, just waiting for release, the Sporobolus asper, Indian grass and big bluestem. I could literally kick myself for not setting up monitoring transects here (but I will next growing season).

The message I read from the awe-inspiring site is that if you allow natural processes to occur, if you don't go in and try to repair impacts that occurred naturally, high quality native ecosystems can fend for themselves if they had integrity to begin with and hadn't been damaged to hell by unnatural human-induced processes.

I ran into Aster sericeus today on the dolomite glade and focussed my $100 point and shoot camera on the leaves so you could see how silky and totally sexy it is, especially when nestled in an equally sexy landscape.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Autumn's palette

The north wind blustered through the Ozarks that bright bluebird afternoon. After several hours of hiking through woodlands and glades the sun began to set over the hills. It's setting much too early these early fall days, and the crickets are the only noise in town. But it's fall composite season! Asters, goldenrods, the stiff stem of the mustard yellow Helianthus occidentalis, restricted to glades in Missouri. I love seeing its basal leaves in my sampling frame during June, thinking ahead to the month when the bluestem turns maroon and gold.