Sunday, November 27, 2011

November Botany

Stretch the legs and kick the leaves before the sun goes down--the winter landscape is settling in for the long haul. There's more to fall woodlands than leaves, but the venation pattern on oak leaves is particularly beautiful in the fall. The abundance of white oak acorns this year is incredible--those little black bears that live in Missouri will likely be very fat and happy this year. My backyard squirrels are already starting to look like arboreal beavers.
From November walks through the woods in the Ozarks, a few photos of wintery images before the snow arrives to bury plant matter altogether, leaving us only with glimpses of brightly colored yellow-rumped warblers and the bright red head of my favorite woodpeckers.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Black Fieldday

Black is my favorite color these days, not because of its trompe l'oeil properties of hiding my ever-increasing girth (thanks, desk job, for making me fatter than I've ever been), but because it means success. It's becoming increasingly difficult to implement fire, the very natural process that shaped Missouri's natural communities since the end of the Pleistocene--the politics of development, the politics of "harming" timber, the "health risks" associated with air quality during those short pulses of rx fire events (but never mind the cumulative effects of millions of tailpipes spewing carbon monoxide into the atmosphere). So when we have a 1,126 acre prescribed fire, I'm happy as a clam...especially when the fire took place in the best remaining tract of woodland and glade complex in all of the Ozark Highlands.

I set out this early morning for a field day with the guy who brought me to Missouri, my former boss (whom I still call 'boss', much to everyone's consternation), the man who made me think in 2004 that protecting biodiversity was a statewide priority. Oh, how wrong I was to believe that, but a day spent with him is always a good day! Winter botany games are great, but hiking through a blackened landscape for hours is the best remedy for any foul mood.

I was rambling on about my second job as we hiked up the draw, rambling about the woman who dropped her pants in front of me and relieved herself on the floor while I stood there speechless with a mop, when we crested the ridge to see Lodge Glade, all slicked off. I shut up, and envisioned the fire sweeping across Lodge, my boss setting the fire at the base of the hill. I thought of that doghair stand of black oaks that were originally topkilled during a wildfire in the 1980s, now a thick, dense shrub layer with 100 year old grubs. These trees on the back of Lodge will never mature, at least not under my former boss' tenure, since every three years, after the trees have grown to about 5 ft tall, fire knocks them back to the ground with scorch heights three feet up the trunks. This shrub layer, formed by frequent fire events, is integral for the survival of grassland-shrubland birds such as Prairie Warblers, Yellow-breasted Chats, and Indigo Buntings. In a 1996 study here, it was determined that the dense shrub layer, one shaped by fire with a distinctive understory of grass-forb mix, harbors the highest populations of breeding Indigo Buntings in the whole watershed. The shrub layer wrankles a lot of folks who expect the whole fire-mediated area to be park like in existence, wide, evenly spaced white oaks-black oaks-post oaks that Schoolcraft can curry his team of 8 horses side by side throughout. But the early surveyors in the area commented on the shrub layer. In fact, the line notes from the 1845 General Land Office Survey (Surveyor AW Morrison) for this exact area mentions "oak undrgrowth, dense shrubby oaks." Chipping Sparrows, too, dig this area. But the shrub-grassland behind Lodge Glade holds the motherlode of breeding Yellow-breasted Chats, so I started thinking about the shrubs, about Lodge, about how much fun I'm going to have this field season sampling breeding birds again. Ah, field season.

This big fire, obviously, ruined the winter deer browse surveys since every shrub and sapling was topkilled.

We kept walking through the burn unit, admiring the handiwork of the stripping, how the continuous matrix of prairie grasses left no hollow unburned, black as far as the eye could see, revealing a massive crop of acorns. Chipmunks scattered all over the place today, and the birds! The Red-headed Woodpeckers are back! And the Eastern Bluebirds, there were at least 200 of them on our short mile-long hike. The woodpeckers were notably absent from my winter bird surveys for the site for the past two years, dropping from a high in 2005 of 104 birds to 0 in 2009. I detected about 30 today on a non-birding casual survey. Relief. I saw about 20 Field Sparrows on the glade today, flitting from 300 year old chinquapin oak to burned up stalks of gama grass, and back again.

In a place like this, where fire has been a part of the management for the past 5,000years, it's hard not to think positively, to think that at least here, biodiversity thrives on a landscape scale.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Beaujolais et St. James Nouveau est arrive!

I tend to slam on California wineries that release their wines when they're too young to drink. I joke a lot about how California is drinking a Cabernet that they made on Wednesday, when, really, their wine needs to least a while. In Missouri, young Nortons are nice- even out of the barrel- but Norton really expresses itself after a few years in the bottle (which is why I have a whole rack of 09s that I won't touch).

But the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau ushers in two months of drinking wine that was only made a month ago, and it's intended to be imbibed while young, very young, only weeks old. In some parts of the country, the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau is cause for big parties at airport hangars, big events with lots of food and glitter. I live in a town that doesn't really celebrate Nouveau, of course, and it's lucky that I can find at least one to drink. You see, in New Orleans or in Europe, one can find a suite of Nouveau available on this first Thursday. My wine shop in Rome carried at least 10 different ones, and my corner store in New Orleans stocked three. Only one is available in Mid-Missouri, made by George DuBoeuf, and it's fine, it'll do, but there are others...(Randol's in St. Louis probably carries a greater variety).

However, if you're in the Ozarks and you want Nouveau for your Thanksgiving table (because at 12.5% alcohol, a light and fruity body, it's really the best wine for Thanksgiving lunch), St. James Winery has the answer. St. James Winery issued their 2011 Nouveau yesterday, the same day Beaujolais hit American soil, prompting me to drive well out of my way to St. James country pick up a bottle. (Leslie at the tasting bar recognizes me as the girl who specifically asks for Nouveau every year. She hollered at me today across the building as I walked in, "it's here! Your Nouveau is here!")

St. James blends three grapes to make their Nouveau: Chambourcin, Rougeon, and Corot Noir. The last day of harvest for this year's St. James Nouveau was September 2, so the grapes didn't have the advantage -like most of this year's Norton grapes- of those cool October nights. This was a tough summer for Missouri grapes, with drought and excessive heat lasting all summer long.

Back home, I ran past the wine shop for a bottle of (only) DuBoeuf's Beaujolais Nouveau to compare to St. James Nouveau. Bring out the Reidel pinot noir glasses, label them with my cellar tags: 1 and 2. Leave the aerator and the wine bottles to the professional in the house to give me a blind tasting in my dining room:

Wine glasses 1/10 full.

#1: Delicate, fruity, with not a lot of body. Almost effervescent in texture, despite the aerator. The finish isn't as clean as most Beaujolais'. Very drinkable.
#2: Full bodied but with a flat finish. Bigger notes of raspberry. Also effervescent with a barely distinguishable brightness. Clean finish, but a little thin.

Of course, this coming from a big Oregon pinot noir fan, a Walla Walla Cabernet fan, an aged Syrah lover....Nouveau is characteristically thin bodied, fruity, and even a little effervescent (which is why it's a holiday wine and not an everyday wine).

I pegged #2 as the French, and #1 as St. James. I chose correctly! The St. James comes with a screw cap at $9.99 a bottle. I'm drinking the French (plastic cork) and will segue into an 05 Syrah before the night is over. But Beaujolais season is so short, so enjoy! Brightness and Fruit! The Harvest!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Fall Fire Season!

In my favorite tract of Ozark woodlands rests my dream burn unit: 800 acres of rich grass-forb mix and a black oak-white oak-post oak canopy so widely spaced the crowns don't touch. I've surveyed birds, salamanders, and plants in this dreamy place for almost 8 years now. I love every hollow and ridgetop, all the creekbeds and glades, and the Red Arrow Fault Line that cuts through the prairie grass like a spiky dinosaur spine.

I didn't get the call on Monday that my dream burn unit was being burned on Tuesday because I was 30 miles south of there flagging out firelines in what could be awesome enough woods, but aren't because the firelines never get installed. So I spent late Monday and Tuesday hiking around through super dense leaf litter in structurally nice dry mesic chert woodlands with no understory. No winter botany games, no fading asters to photograph, just leaf litter and trees. Well, go back there today and you'll see pink and black striped flagging tape (I have a whole box of it because no one ever uses it and it reminds me of Maria Sharapova's US Open dress from two years ago). The flagging tape surrounds a 200 acre hill, traveling down one creekbed, through the flatwoods on top, then down a pretty darned steep slope into another creekbed. I just want to burn that hill. Actually, I'd like to burn the whole acreage, but that hill would be a good start.

Driving back home yesterday afternoon, I saw the enormous plume of smoke from my dream burn unit on fire through the dashboard of my car:

I pulled over to watch the smoke rise from the rest of the area, sipping on cold coffee while envisioning my old boss hiking through the bottoms to send fire uphill. I watched from 20 miles away, all that grass and leaf litter (3 years' worth) go up in smoke. It was beautiful. This is not just burning off a hillside, yesterday's fire was burning off the best tract of woods in the state, making them ready for my post-burn vegetation and bird surveys. Field season will be a delight!

Knowing the burn conditions were optimum across the Ozarks yesterday, I high-tailed it home, skipped the gym, and set fire to my yard. The lines are always so beautifully prepared in my yard--down to mineral soil with plenty of space between our fuels and that huge woodpile next door that has been curing for three years. Winds picked up as the sun started to go down, sending embers from chinquapin oak leaves into the air where, thankfully, they extinguished rather than landing in, say, the neighbor's yard.

To see if your favorite woods are burning, check the NOAA Spot Weather Forecast here. Yesterday's Spot Forecast lists the fuel type for the woodlands as "Grass/Leaf Litter." Not too many Ozark woodlands can be characterized that way...
11/17/11: Check out today's Spot Weather Forecast to see the beautiful torch work of one of my favorite people in the Ozarks! Beautiful dry chert woodlands and glades burned today in the Western Ozarks!

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Fall Supper

While many in the Ozarks are busy crocheting red and green afghans, knitting hats and stitching felt onto stockings in preparation for Holiday Craft Bazaars, others are building the roster of kitchen duties for the community's Annual Fall Supper. An age-old tradition in the Ozarks, Fall Suppers serve not only as festive gatherings for the area but as fundraisers for the community and oftentimes for the local church and private school.

Fall Supper menus usually include fried chicken, ham, green beans, rolls or homemade bread, a vinegar-based slaw, and tables of homemade desserts--pies, cakes, brownies. Vienna is serving turkey and sausage this year (November 12). In the German Catholic communities, there's always a beer garden serving Anheuser-Busch products and maybe Pabst Blue Ribbon. These community gatherings are organized locally, often by the women of the church, and can feed thousands of visitors. There are usually games for the kids, raffles for handmade quilts, sometimes raffles for pots of money, all to raise funds for the area. Most Fall Suppers are buffet style, and can run all day. People travel from across the area to attend these festive events.