Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Shortest Day of the Year

Winter hasn't moved in with the same vengeance as it did last year with Arctic blasts every week. We were lucky for that long fall, for the opportunity to burn over 2,000 acres in my area, and grateful I am that the roads haven't been totally wrecked by snow and sleet during my commute. Today marks the first true day of winter, the shortest day of the year. The morning started out cloudy with cardinals at the feeder, a still, warm enough day. As the winds picked up, the sky cleared, the sun came out and the temperature dropped, but not much. It doesn't feel like Christmas 2010 when we were all bundled up and putting chains on our tires to manage the snowfall while finishing our shopping. Nevertheless, the shorter days are on the wane, thankfully. Driving to and from work in the dark makes me consider if I'm really cut out for 9 to 5 office work. Actually, I know that I'm not, which is why I'm in the field more than at my desk, leaving office work for weekend nights when I'm snuggly in my jammies and working from home at 1 am.

Seed catalogues started arriving last week, bringing the promise of kale and chard and slow bolting cilantro. Seeds need to be in starter pots as early as February! Winter birding, however, is at its peak these days, with brown creepers and yellow bellied sapsuckers showing up throughout the Ozarks. The charismatic waterfowl haven't moved south to Missouri yet (the weather has been so clement in the northern climes that they haven't needed our food plots and little ephemeral pools). My backyard squirrels have enjoyed the larder of unshelled nuts ranging from Brazil nuts to walnuts to pecans, all intended for my nut dish but ending up on the platform feeder in the backyard and disappearing within moments of being placed there. I like to think that the squirrels live in the crevices of my witness tree Chinquapin oak, an old gnarly thing that deserves a plaque--a remnant of a fire-mediated Columbia. Alas, I think the squirrels are living in the abandoned trailer behind my house, squirreling their nuts in old siding, hoarding them all for the Christmas morning feast and sleeping in insulation.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Results are in!

We crested the first ridgetop around 7am, the sun barely shining through the bare branches of the black oaks. Our Christmas Bird Count was shaping up to be a bluebird skies kind of day with winds light and variable, highs expected to reach the mmid-40s from this morning's low of 22 degrees. On the drive to our assigned woodlands, we counted two Northern mockingbirds and a Cooper's hawk hanging out above an empty bird feeder (and all the feeder birds next door in the quince). I left the regular group I bird with for the count because I'm really not very good with identifying waterfowl at a distance, and I don't really like birding at sewage treatment plants.

The sun finally came up above the hills, shining brightly on the dolomite cliff above the creek. Like clockwork, birds came into the sunlight, in plain view for our tally sheets. Yellow-rumped warblers, Red-bellied woodpeckers, a single Yellow-breasted Sapsucker drilling into a cedar, good woodland birds were tallied today with no sparrows to speak of and not a single Hermit thrush. Today's highlight included listening to the little warble of Golden-crowned kinglets as they flitted around the white oaks in the valley.

The highlights of this year's count include the spotting of 5 million blackbirds in one roost, blackening the trees for a mile; 50 screech owls along one stretch of the KATY Trail (a historic number); watching an American kestral swoop in and attack a mouse; Virginia rails and Sand Hill cranes in the wetlands at the sewage treatment plant. The best part of the day, however, was the solitude we found in the 8 mile trail through the woods where my small team of two didn't see another person until we met the rest of the Area 4S group for a late lunch to compare notes. We never found a Hermit thrush, but found the Winter wren and the only Golden-crowned kinglets in the section. Overall, we tallied 103 species for the Count Circle, which isn't too bad for an urban setting with a horrible sprawl problem.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

112th Christmas Bird Count Begins!

We've come a long way since the 19th century when a popular Christmas sport called the "side hunt" entailed shooting every bird seen on Christmas Day. Back then, whichever group came back with the most birds was considered the winner for the day. The tradition worried ornithologist Dr. Frank Chapman for obvious reasons, and in 1900 he started what he hoped would become an annual tradition, the Christmas Bird Count. Over 110 years later, the count is still conducted annually throughout the country. While some consider birding a sport (one that involves checklists and high counts, winners for the most bird species seen, etc.) the Christmas Bird Count is no longer a side hunt but a terrific way to monitor winter bird populations.

In the Ozarks, there are 8 count circles from Dallas Co. to Springfield to Big Spring country around Van Buren. The Christmas Bird Count takes place in these designated circles, a set area that can encompass thousands of acres. Within that circle, birders fan out to count individual birds. So, after a full day of birding in Missouri, bird counts often reflect hundreds of cardinals, flickers and juncos with species counts ranging from 60 on the low end to 120 (usually those circles with significant waterfowl populations). One active count circle in Missouri was established in the 1960s, and data from each bird count is stored online. In this one area, for example, one can see how many pintail were there in 1965, how many brown creepers in 1980, and so on. Audubon uses the CBC information to track changes in North American bird populations; in recent years, for example, hooded merganser populations in New England have soared while grosbeaks have declined.

I'll be in dry mesic woodlands on Saturday with someone I've never met counting woodland birds for the day. We plan to do some owling, calling in screech, barred, great horned owls to see how many may be detected that day. Check here to see if there's a circle in your area. Contact the local organizer if you'd like to join the fun! Otherwise, don't be nervous if you see a car stop in front of your house between now and January 4 so the counters can add your suet-feeding woodpeckers to their list.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Organizing the Troops

I think it was in August, the hot desiccating month of August when I slowed to a crawl at the Vienna city limits and saw the sign: "Yard Sale." Out in front of the late 1970s ranch style house were no fewer than 30 plastic Santa Claus lawn ornaments, the vintage type Santas, the kind with little incandescent bulbs inside of them that light up at night. The ranch house on Hwy. 63 outside of Vienna is always a welcome sight during the holdays; starting in late November, the elderly couple who have lived there for many years begin setting out literally hundreds of plastic figurines, mostly Santas, but also snowmen, the Holy Family (surrounded by snowmen), enormous candy canes, the three Wise Men (located on the opposite side of the yard from the Holy Family throughout Advent, of course). For the past three years, the number of Santas has continued to increase. When I saw the Yard Sale sign, I panicked. I asked everyone I knew if the Santa house in Vienna had been sold, if the elderly couple's kids decided to stop the tradition of light up Santas, if the elderly couple just couldn't afford the electric bill and all those danged blanged extension cords going all over the yard.

A sigh of relief this week as I once again slowed from 70 to 35 mph at the first sign of the Vienna city limits and beheld not 100 Santas, but a tripled, ever-burgeoning population of plastic light up Santas (and snowmen, a Holy Family, the three Wise Men, and candy canes). I'm not a lawn ornament person, and didn't grow up in a family fascinated with lawn ornaments, but I'm transfixed by the Vienna Santa Army. I really appreciate the spirit of the holidays this couple portrays by populating their sprawling fescue lawn with plastic ornaments. This year, unlike the past three years, the Santas are all in a straight line, a phalanx of Santas just south of the highway right-of-way. I think the Santas are organizing a coup. I think the elderly couple- spied setting out more Santas earlier this week -are sending us a message. The Santas are truly an organized force this year, an army of Christmas cheer. The message is loud and clear: the rows of light up Santas are warning us, imploring us to be ye of good cheer during Christmastide. Let not the frustrations of daily toil and stupid politics wreak havoc on this wonderful season when cookies are meant to be shared and late nights spent drinking egg nog with fancy rum by the bright C7 lights adorning the cedar sawed down at dusk in Phelps Co.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Slow and Steady Meets Target

Red-headed woodpeckers cackled above as they flitted between white oaks, distracted as they were from gorging on this year's bumper acorn crop by the huge plume of smoke and small flames down below. It's the most wonderful time of the year, fall fire season! when all of that preparation of firelines really pays off. Today was no exception.

We're in maintenance mode here in the Niangua Basin unit, an area that's been burned for the past 30 years. The fire program started in this tract of woodlands when I was walking door to door selling Girl Scout cookies. Today's weather conditions were ideal: no frost on the windshield, winds 5-8 mph, relative humidity between 21-32% all day. It's a rare occasion to actually burn woodlands in the Ozarks when the threat of a cold front presses. When frontal systems move in they're usually accompanied by squirrely winds shifting directions and sometimes of high intensity. A quick call to Springfield NOAA this morning revealed that the cold front wasn't going to reach the Western Ozarks until around 5, with winds shifting to the North at 2-3 mph. No real threat there, since the fire will be finished by around 4 with an ignition time of 10:30 am. Be wary of burning on the same day a frontal system is expected.

Fire crept along the toeslope, barely moving. We kept at it, sending strips of fire into the woodlands, walking well into the unit with fire, dripping streams of it at the base of hills in hopes of an upslope run here and there. The fire continued to creep. We kept walking, dripping fire. As I walked through one patch of aromatic sumac with my lit torch, a red bat flew up out of the leaf litter, so close in front of me I saw his charming facial features and the venation pattern on his large, almost translucent pink wings. He was tangled in the brush, in the sumac, but he quickly fanagled himself free to perch in a nearby post oak. Red bats are not only fire tolerant, sensing smoke and fire that trigger them to fly up to a nearby tree to wait for the flaming front to pass, but they're fire dependent: in a recent study, it was discovered that red bats only exist in woodlands that are burned every 3-7 years. Unburned woodlands in the study harbored no red bats. Red bats can't exist in thick, overstocked woodlands. They need fire.

I thought a lot today about a diversity in fire regimes when implementing prescribed fire. In papers and presentations, I often talk about how important it is to change the seasons of fire, the frequency of fire, the intensity of fire. Today, only a few days after a decent enough rain the Niangua Basin, fire intensity was pretty low. Today's fire was the definitive "low intensity, frequent fires" that shaped much of the Ozarks. We didn't need to restore the woodlands here, they were restored 30 years ago when the fire regimes that existed in the Niangua Basin for the past 5,000 years were returned to the scene following active fire suppression since the 1920s.

Today's plodding little fire coursed through the whole 250 acre area. Around 3:30, as the shadows grew long and the deep muck fen (with Carex buxbaumii, no less) burned completely, we met up with the other crew. Fire behavior was simple, and our beautifully formed smoke column could be seen clearly from Westphalia. We stripped the interior, setting all the grass on fire, and walked the beautifully prepared firelines twice to make sure no snags were compromising the line (but they weren't because the awesome fire crew blew out around them...), to make sure the fire continued over the hill to the other hill, through the drainage, through the fen. A classic example of a low intensity fire today, a fire that consumed leaf litter, maybe knocked back some brush but not all, in a burn unit that will be a showcase in April, rich with morels and wildflowers and red bats and woodpeckers.