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.

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