Friday, January 28, 2011

Wintering warblers

On occasion, winter birding requires great patience. In particular, cold, dreary, cloudy mornings tend to keep woodland birds hunkered down (while waterfowl can congregate by the thousands on any available open water). The great migration will begin soon, ushering in the time of year when even casual birders visit natural areas after a random sighting of a summer tanager or common yellowthroat in their suburban backyard.

But winter birding in Missouri's woodlands is just as rewarding, offering the chance to see large flocks of striking cedar waxwings as well as a warbler that you won't see during the summer in Missouri. Some of the warblers that officially winter in the southern US can be seen here on rare occasion, but the yellow-rumped warbler, a winter resident in Missouri, is the most commonly encountered. The winter plumage of yellow-rumped warblers can be rather variable, ranging from striking and colorful to drab, but they always possess unmistakeable patches of yellow above the tailfeathers and on their sides. Yellow-rumped warblers breed in Alaska, Canada, and in the upper northeastern U.S., but during the winter months in the Ozarks, they're easily found in woodlands, in brushy areas of old fields, in blackberry brambles, in pretty diverse habitat types. (I usually find them fluttering about in small groups in the woodland canopy or along a brushy fencerow with a nearby woodlot.)

Palm warblers are less commonly seen in the upper reaches of the Ozarks, but can be (somewhat reliably) found in the lower reaches of the Ozarks. Their official winter range extends from north Louisiana to Panama, but on occasion they appear in the Christmas Bird Count list for southeast Missouri. I've seen them in the Ozarks around the Eleven Point River. While palm warblers possess a uniformly brown winter plumage, their habit of wagging their tail feathers up and down while they forage on the woodland floor is distinctive. Look for palm warblers in the interior of intact woodlands and true forest. Riparian zones along Ozark rivers can harbor palm warblers during early spring as they migrate to Canada and the upper northeast U.S. to breed.

In the dead of winter, one is less likely to see orange-crowned warblers in Missouri, but in recent weeks, several sightings of them have occurred here. Known primarily from the Western U.S. during the breeding season, they winter in the southeast U.S. and are regular feeder visitors in coastal Louisiana. The orange of "orange-crowned" is seldom visible, and when it is, it's not very noticeable, merely a slip of orange on a brown head. I've seen them this month in open woodlands in a small, brushy stand of sassafras. Occasionally, Christmas Bird Count participants in Missouri will detect orange-crowned warblers, but they're uncommon.

Similar to orange-crowned warblers, sightings of common yellowthroats in winter months are uncommon. They breed in Missouri, and are usually found in low, wet or brushy areas. In the winter, common yellowthroats lose their unmistakeable black mask, but maintain a pale yellow throat. Finding a common yellowthroat in the winter is always a treat, and may require documentation if found during a Christmas Bird Count.

Check in here for bird sightings in Missouri, a listserve for users to post sightings. Top on the list this week in the Ozarks is the short-eared owl hanging around the Fulton airport, and the golden-crowned sparrow and spotted towhee that arrived earlier this month at a feeder in Linn. If you're around Rolla, look for the Eastern phoebe at DeWitt Pond around Bohigian CA. Brown thrashers spotted north of Columbia, so they're probably in the Ozarks. Winter birding can be fun!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Prairie Poem

From Justin Thomas, Missouri's greatest botanist, a poem from his wonderful weblog The Vasculum:

Prairie Poem
Oh proud prairie
Oh fertile shroud
Rooted in the black depths of antiquity
Spotted and swaying with varying degrees
Of blue, green and golden pleasures
A symphony of silent strength
Where wind and grass collide
To worship open expanse
In you I confide

Between the prayers of a Pleistocene sky
The pressure of ice
And the loft of loess
I walk in silent search
Of anything
That can exist so freely
As these erupting spirits of bloom
In concert with birds, time
Motion and tune

Oh my miserable heart
diced to bleeding pulsing squares
Roads and crops
Dust and barbed wire stares
Pitted with rust
That stain more red than ignorance
My imprisoned prairie soul
Dig deep
Into ancient soils
And find the us
In what remains
Of the plows crumbs
And the cattle's waste
Find the starry night
So far away
And let us sleep
Under it
And remain

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Cafe 37

My most un-sexy black Jansport swimsuit remains balled up on the floorboard of my car. It shares space with a coffee stained Wine Spectator from November (for the treadmill), a wooden embroidery hoop, a tangled wad of chartreuse embroidery floss and purple swim goggles with UVB protection. All of these items have been there since my last float trip in November. Float season can't come soon enough, really, so my swimsuit is ready, waiting in the car for a warm spring day and a cold, cold dip in an Ozark river to look for crayfish.

Reminiscing on past float trips during this week's 6 inch snow event, I'm reminded of the great comfort of a hot meal and wine found post float throughout the Ozarks. There are those restaurants which are automatically elevated to "truly wonderful" status where one can find a healthful vegetarian meal and a decent glass of wine served in a glass, the best way to finish off a day of eating Fig Newtons and peanuts and drinking a young Walla Walla out of a steel thermos.

Because I'm not very self conscious about my appearance after a float or a fire, I really don't mind sitting down at the Rolla Applebees in braids with my swimsuit peeking from my tank top to order a fresh glass of Mirassou and their black beans (extra steamed broccoli, no butter). No one there ever seems to mind, which is nice, that I look like something the proverbial cat dragged in, having been swimming and jumping off boulders all day.

In Poplar Bluff, after long and perfect days on the Eleven Point, we found our sunburned grungy selves at the Pasta House where I always ordered Sangiovese, not their most popular. I often sent back the caramelized brown wine, asking pretty please for a fresh glass, "...I'll take anything red, whatever's only opened in the past day and isn't a merlot or a Chianti or from California, please." So very accomodating, the waitstaff never bat an eye when I send back turned wine (even though I really don't look like someone who should know better?). Good vegetarian options, too.

Maybe it's cultural, maybe restaurateurs in the Ozarks who live around float towns come to expect grungy floaters, but in fact they welcome floaters. Heck, they'd rather be floating too! The Ozark Orchard in downtown Eminence, the heart of float country, is particularly charming, and they make a lovely trout with steamed green beans (they have a bar upstairs, with wine). Also in Eminence, Winfield's can whip up a slamming breakfast, and good hot coffee for the ride back home if the wind ripping through the river valley blows out your campstove one too many times.

If you find yourself in West Plains, bypass the fast food restaurants on the main drag and follow the brown signs to their Historic Downtown, a short drive off of Hwy. 63. On a corner in the town square rests the historic West Plains Opera House, built in 1886 by Thomas Johnson. Historically, the building held retail space on the first floor and on the second floor a full theater, orchestra pit and balcony. The building then served as a bank after purchase by O.H. Catron. In the late 1990s, West Plains native Russ Cochran began a complete restoration of the old opera house. It's a remarkable tin ceiling building, complete with a carefully restored antique hand carved bar, the likes of which I've rarely seen in the Ozarks.

Cafe 37 offers fancy comfort food-- blackened fish tacos with remoulade and pico de gallo over rice pilaf and avacado sour cream, a baked brie served with apple butter, all sorts of meat dishes, rich desserts, and a notable wine list. It's the wine list, the food, the room, the staff, the bar, the lighting, the lovely building that keeps bringing me back there when really I should just eat a Clif bar and a banana for dinner. But the wine list! There are usual suspects of course, some California pinot noir, I'm certain a merlot, but my eyes migrate to the 2007 Cotes du Rhone. I asked to see the bottle, presented to me unopened, and sure enough: an 07 Cotes du Rhone, in West Plains. (In recent months, I've ordered certain vintages yet served much younger vintages, much tighter wines that really shouldn't be served for a few more years. Then comes the rigamarole of sending it back, asking for the list again...and starting over). Their lovely stemware (great bordeaux glasses) only highlights their wines. Up the road on Preacher Roe Blvd. is Cafe 37's wine shop and lunch place, Grapevine. Quiche, sandwiches, salads, and a fancy wine shop in West Plains.

Back home, sidled up next to the usual crew to watch tennis (Federer-Simon) while the snow started to fall, I regaled my friends with tales of Cafe 37. No one believed me, no one in the group--despite all the days and weeks spent floating in the Ozarks--had ever taken Business 63 to 160/17 to Historic Downtown. "West Plains? A great restaurant in West Plains?" Yes, West Plains. And, to boot, much nicer stemware than any restaurant around here.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

12th Night in the Field

Epiphany arrived on Thursday this week, and I was pleased to learn that my fellow Episcopalians from Louisiana still had their Christmas trees up. (I wasn't the only one in the country...). Needles falling everywhere, of course, but still up. My big, desiccated cedar came down this weekend, his corner now filled with a big Boston fern who must appreciate the bright light coming from the front windows. So begins Carnival season, fire season, winter storm season, big snows, but increasingly longer days.

With the available daylight, I head to the woods to spend time in a stagnant landscape. After an early growing season burn in the woodlands, the unburned little bluestem erupted, sending out long stalks of ethereal, feathery seeds that remain in tact long into January. The mosses remain green, of course, and a source of great intrigue. I know a few of them by name, but not many. They remain a brilliant source of color in the winter landscape, and such a remarkable, fascinating group. 'Tis the season for brightness, Louis Prima, loud seasonings, winter squash, purple green and gold, and renewed vigor in all things....

Thursday, January 06, 2011


An eerie silence penetrated the morning fog as I crested the ridge this morning. Today marked the fourth visit in as many weeks to my favorite birding haunt to conduct yet another winter bird survey. I've conducted the winter bird surveys here since 2003 when red-headed woodpeckers were so commonly encountered that we counted them by fives. Since 2007, near the beginning of rampant, unchecked development in the watershed, the wintering red-headed woodpeckers have declined. The high counts in 2003 through 2006 averaged 30 birds at 7 different locations scattered throughout the site. In 2009, I logged 4. This year, on four different trips spanning an entire day under various weather conditions, I didn't see or hear a single one.

As the sun moved from behind the hills, the rest of the wintering birds came to life: lots of red-bellieds, nuthatches with their silly "quank", yellow-rumped warblers, titmice, kinglets, a flock of about 40 cedar waxwings flapping wildly while picking off all the blue berries from a fire-pruned cedar. But no red-headeds. Barring the bald eagle, broad-winged hawk, American widgeons and gadwalls, the rest of the birds on my checklist today have all paid a visit or two to my urban backyard feeding station. No red-headeds in my backyard, either, of course.

Red headed woodpeckers (for as long as I've lived here, at least) were the signature bird of nice open woodlands in the Ozarks. So common on the landscape were they that folks living in the Ozarks saw them frequently at suet feeders. The dapper birds were so prevalent in the semi-urban white oak woods I lived in that every knothole in my storage shed housing was packed with their carefully crammed white oak acorns. They're not around that area anymore.

For the past several years, I've noted red-headed woodpeckers' presence on different watch lists--Central Hardwoods Joint Venture, Audubon. In Illinois, where only 2% of the state's land cover is in native vegetation, small little preserves are set aside in an effort to protect dwindling aspects of a once biodiverse landscape. One tract is a whopping 12 acres, an area set aside to protect one of the only known populations of compass plant. Compass plant! It's not sustainable. But the Ozark Highlands, the thousands of acres of land spread across many miles with disjunct patches of development. The St. Francois Mountains, for example, is not as open or the ideal structure for red-headeds as are the western Ozarks, but I wonder if red-headeds are hanging out around igneous knobs. Or is it something larger, problems in their breeding grounds, for example.

So, the next step is to visit other similar open woodland tracts away from the development zone (Forest Service land, for example) to see if the red-headeds are still there. It's been so long since I've seen or heard them, I hope I haven't forgotten their gurgling churl.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Going to the woods

As long as I can remember, I've spent New Year's Day in the woods. I seldom think of resolutions until New Year's Day, often changing my mind to accomodate both my annual birthday goals and my actual booked schedule. Last year I vowed to write more, and to read more. I kept up with handwritten correspondence all year, and read every blasted book about Jefferson and wine, American grapes, America's eating problem, the biodiversity crisis, the rise of Chez Panisse, and others all found by systematically browsing the shelves of the well-lit (and tastefully appointed) Daniel Boone Public Library. I wrote hundreds of letters, and tried to steer clear of writing about cows, even though I continue to have nightmares and panic attacks about them and their impacts. I think I wrote about my garden a lot and how I can't seem to grow big bell peppers, but my kale produced tender leaves all spring and summer.

In the past year, actually, in the course of two months, I've managed to put on 6 blasted pounds, weighing in at 106.2 for the first time ever. I'll lose it, and I'll keep it off (because that's how it starts with middle aged women like me: one pound one year, three pounds on holiday...then wham! you're 30 pounds heavier and having to buy new clothes to hide it.)

I'll try my hand at making a barrel of Norton this year using fancy designer yeasts and only the best grapes Missouri has to offer. (Ozark coopers sell white oak barrels specifically for home winemaking). I've been reading about home winemaking for two years, hesitant to take the plunge for fear of making some sweet crap that I wouldn't drink, or even put my name on, for that matter.

Top priority, however, is to spend at the very least two days a week in the woods. It shouldn't be hard during spring, what with all of my woodland projects already lined up, but I need to stick to it even in August when I'm trying to write all the reports on my spring and summer surveys. Too much inside time in the past year.

3: More overnight floats. More backpacking. More long trips into the Ozark woods and rivers that brought me here in the first place. I don't live in Missouri for the food, after all, but the wine's great.