Tuesday, February 28, 2012

March 2012: Cause for Celebration

On a brisk March day in 1983, history was made in the Niangua Basin. Paul Nelson, then Chief of the Natural History Program for parks, lit the first match on a 40 acre tract of white oak-black oak-post oak woodlands named the "Demonstration Unit," ushering in the implementation of prescribed fire in woodlands in the Midwest. That morning, as staff were preparing for this historic event, foresters with the state wildlife agency and the local news crews arrived at the site. The foresters banged their fists in anger, "you'll kill timber," they said, "you'll make the natives restless." This area, you see, had been maintained with fire by local landowners since settlement, and before that, by Native Americans for the past 5,000 years. Nelson continued with the fire event much to the ire of many who didn't understand his concept of ecosystem restoration. That night, the local news channel offered a glowing report supporting the fire event on the Demonstration Unit, explaining to the night's viewers how important fire is to maintaining a woodland.

Since that day in 1983, agencies and private landowners throughout Missouri have treated thousands of acres of fire-mediated natural communities with prescribed fire towards a goal of ecosystem restoration, the goal of implementing a natural disturbance factor that gave rise to our biodiverse landscape over thousands of years. But in the early 1980s, the opposition to prescribed fire remained stalwart, even causing the refusal of publication of the first Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri until the fire mediated systems were renamed--"woods aren't supposed to burn," some editors claimed, "but savannas can." And so, the term "savanna" was employed in the 85 edition to describe what we now more appropriately call woodland.

There are those who still call fire-mediated woodlands in the Ozarks "savanna," but the term (in that regard) is an artifact of political bickering about the use of fire in "timber." With the 2005 edition of the Terrestrial Natural Communities, savanna was placed in a category defined by a 10-30% canopy closure very widely spaced trees and not a lot of it left in Missouri. High quality Ozark woodlands--called "savanna" in the 1980s--possess a 30->80% canopy closure. Most true savanna in Missouri has been converted to pasture with fescue replacing the rich matrix of warm season grasses and prairie forbs. These post oak-dominated savanna landscapes have been heavily grazed for over 100 years, and few examples remain. Structurally, savanna can still be seen in the Ozarks in Maries County (Central Plateau), but the herbaceous layer has been destroyed by grazing by domestic livestock. The only high quality example of savanna in Missouri is in the Central Dissected Till Plains country, far away from Ozark woodlands. Regardless, both savannas and woodlands require fire for survival. (See here an earlier post on true oak savanna in the Willamette Valley...)

In the course of 29 years, a handful of Ozark landscapes have seen 10 prescribed fires, one every 3 to 5 years. On a large landscape scale, the preservation of biodiversity remains a priority. Of course, with the widespread application of prescribed fire throughout the state, there are certain (unfortunately too many) situations where frequent fire is harming woodlands because land managers fail to consider other factors that influence biodiversity (too closed canopy, deer problems, grazing history that didn't leave any herbaceous layer behind, and so forth). A little knowledge and too much fire can be dangerous, even in regards to ecosystem restoration efforts.

After the squirrely winds associated with tonight's front die down, and after we have a little more moisture on our very dry 1 hour fuels, great hope abounds that those crisp March mornings where the leaves crunch a certain way will return, offering a successful spring fire season measured only by acres treated. Check here for Spot Forecasts from NOAA to see if your favorite tract of woodlands are being managed with prescribed fire, 29 years after it was initiated as an institution.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Spring Wildflowers in the Ozark Highlands

My classy botanist friend in St. Louis posted his first-of-year [aptly named] Harbinger of Spring photo over the weekend, almost two weeks before his first photo last year. Last winter was, well, wintry, icy, harsh, snowy and so forth. These 45 degree days that have persisted throughout February did not occur last year, and spring wildflowers didn't break through the leaf litter until much later than they have this year. Hepatica nobilis, for example, didn't bloom last year in Current River country until the third week of March; reports came in over the weekend that Spring Beauty was in flower as far north as St. Louis. If bloom cycles are tracking two weeks early this year, I hope we don't see a repeat event of April 2007 when the temperatures plummeted to the low teens for three days in a row, blackening the spring green of the canopy and impacting the 07 Norton vintage. Walking through the windy woods in May 07 was reminiscent of autumn with the rustling of dead leaves on trees.

With the Harbinger of Spring reports comes my annual posting of Paul Nelson's beautiful botanical illustrations from his out of print book, Spring Wildflowers of Missouri State Parks, published in 1981. Aside from the exquisite full page illustrations, the book's cover is an original oil painting, a well-composed assortment of his glade wildflower illustrations (very rare, actually. Paul hadn't worked in oil since high school art class in Berkeley, but did so late at night for this terrific publication). In the past few years I have posted a number of the illustrations to serve as a crash course for visitors to Ozark woodlands and glades in the spring. See here and here for more illustrations.

Harbinger of Spring (left), also called Salt and Pepper because of the stark white petals and deep maroon stamens, has been noted to bloom as early as late January. Find this wildflower in deep, moist coves, protected, more forested areas (rather than in a frequently burned area). Harbinger of Spring has been noted to bloom when snow is on the ground.

A perennial favorite of mine, Bloodroot sends up its flower early in the spring wildflower season. Cut the deeply incised leaf with a knife and the sap runs red. The single leaf of Bloodroot will remain visible well into June.
There are several species of trilliums in the Ozarks, but the maroon flowering T. sessile is more often encountered. Visit rich dry mesic woodlands, bases of bluffs and true forests throughout the Ozarks for T. sessile.

Visit bottomland woodlands to find a suite of buttercups including this one, Ranunculus septentrionalis. Named for its bright yellow flowers that resemble fake butter.

Glade plants! You'll find Yellow Star Grass on most dolomite glades in early April, usually sharing the space with Bird's foot Violet and Hoary Puccoon. Unlike some of the forest associates in the spring wildflower category, this bright yellow wildflower loves fire. Check out burned glades for heartier populations.

...and don't forget about visiting recently burned woods for Tall Larkspur which usually begins to bloom in late April.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Happy Lundi and Mardi Gras, y'all!

Tune in to live parade broadcasts from New Orleans from 3-10pm on Lundi Gras (Tucks, Proteus, Orpheus) and watch Rex on Mardi Gras day. Unfortunately, I don't think Zulu goes that far uptown, so you'll miss the best Mardi Gras parade of them all. Orpheus is quite a spectacle with some of the brightest lights all Mardi Gras season. Marching bands, flambeaux, Blaine Kern floats, brass bands, what Mardi Gras is all about....

Friday, February 17, 2012

Counting birds in the Ozarks

(Lovely pine warbler photo from GBBC website, uploaded by Will Stuart of Matthews, NC)

I casually checked in throughout the day to find out who was seeing what birds where in Missouri. By 8 pm, the Ozarks were well represented on the Great Backyard Bird Count website. Bird counters in Pineville (Elk River Hills country) documented 2 pine warblers and a total of 27 species. Springfield counters have witnessed 31 species, and in Rolla, 32 species. St. Louis leads the pack of bird counters with 17 checklists submitted, with Kansas City and Rolla following closely with 13 and 10 checklists submitted by early evening Friday (the first day of the count). A number of folks in Missouri are seeing Eastern bluebirds (lucky) and someone in Theodosia documented a greater roadrunner today (luckier).

The list I'll submit from my backyard feeding station won't hold a candle to most of the ones submitted so far (too many house sparrows, few cardinals, flickers, red bellieds, my local Cooper's hawk who keeps coming in...). If I head to the nice burned woods this weekend, I could submit a pretty impressive list with high numbers of red headed woodpeckers, eagles, so forth.

It's nice to see participants from Stover, Mountain View, Houston, Willow Springs, and other Ozark towns representing; check here for a statewide list of results and locales. The submission page is very easy to use, so if you have a few minutes over the weekend, submit a bird checklist of your own here.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


Spring wildflower season doesn't begin for several weeks in the Ozarks, but winter's green reminds us that one can practice botany all year. Aside from the mosses and lichens- the great diversity of species of both found throughout the Ozarks in almost every landscape type- a handful of ferns spend their winter clinging to the sides of limestone, dolomite and sandstone boulders, persisting in these harsh growing conditions. Cheilanthees feei and Pellea atropurpurea show up in sampling plots on glades, both of them small ferns that tuck themselves into little crevices on rock outcrops, able to withstand flaming fronts during prescribed fires. In wooded areas, where the leaves of spring's pale corydalis can be found almost year round, walking fern covers large areas on boulders by sending out little plantlets that send their pale roots into tiny crevices of large boulders. The ancient genetic memory of distinct plant communities in the Ozarks cannot be duplicated or recreated, for it is an irreplaceable and infinitely remarkable vestige of Missouri's natural history that evolved over thousands of years.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Rare, locally abundant

While combing through my personal library looking for my out of print Ferns of Arkansas, I came across a small, pocket-sized black and white field guide published in 1978 by the North Central Forest Experiment Station (US Forest Service) in Minneapolis. Rare Plants of the Ozark Plateau: A Field Identification Guide was in a discard pile at a rural library in the Ozarks many years ago now, so I bought it and the rest of the old natural history books for twenty five cents each. Late nights in my cabin I enjoyed reading early vegetational histories written in the 1930s-50s when botanists surmised that glades on cedars were a sign of “succession,” and that glades and prairies would, through time, become true forest. We’ve come so far in the field of ecology in Missouri that many of these early ecological concepts represent mere artifacts akin to Medieval metallurgy or Aristotle’s concepts of phrenology.

But the Rare Plants of the Ozark Plateau (Roedner, Hamilton, and Evans) is chocked full of plants still listed and tracked by the Natural Heritage Database, a program established in the very early 1980s by author and botanical illustrator Paul Nelson. In this 1978 field guide, plants such as Eriogonum longifolium, Habenaria peramoena, Mead’s milkweed, and Queen of the Prairie are listed as rare in the Ozarks—-today, they’re still tracked by Heritage, and still uncommon on a larger landscape scale, restricted by habitat type or disturbance factors. In the case of Mead’s milkweed, the best place for conservation is on the St. Francois Mountains (if the deer population is kept in check). However, several of the rare Ozark plants in the book such as Liatris mucronata and Trelease’s larkspur are more common today than they were in 1978 thanks to an active ecosystem restoration program in Missouri. Fens, glades, woodlands, none of these areas were under active fire management in 1978; the fire program didn’t begin in Missouri’s woodlands, fens and glades until 1983 when Paul Nelson lit the first match on a nice tract of woods in Niangua country (much to the consternation of other agencies and local fire districts).

In this nice field guide, each plant listing includes a “possible locations” entry. Julian Steyermark’s Flora of Missouri (1963) included occurrence maps for each species, the result of an inordinate amount of fieldwork and herbarium studies. Plants restricted in Missouri to the White River Hills, for example, are listed in the field guide with possible locations of “Stone, Taney, Barry, and Ozark Counties.” But if a botanist visited the glades of the White River Hills in 1978, it is likely that they would not find thriving populations of these plants. In 1978, following 80 years of open grazing by domestic livestock, the glades in what we now call “glades country” were full of cedars, cedars so thick in some places it remains amazing that glade vegetation could hang on for so long without light. (Of course, many glade plants are deep rooted perennials with ancient rootstocks.)

Today, visit the glades in the White River Hills with active ecosystem restoration programs in place (and without too much abuse from grazing), and you’ll find some of these rare plants from the field guide are common in the matrix. Bush’s poppy mallow, known from wooded slopes in the White River Hills, is still quite rare today, likely due to the lack of fire in the woodlands surrounding glade complexes.

Move up towards Greene Co. on the Springfield Plain where the limestone glades harbor Missouri bladderpod populations (called “flurries”), and you’ll find a similar situation—-managed glades in and around Greene Co. have large populations of bladderpod with thousands of plants. But leave the natural range of bladderpod in Missouri and they disappear altogether. Today, certain plants rare in the Ozarks are locally abundant in certain areas of the Ozarks such as the the case with the restricted ranges of the bladderpod glades, Jefferson Co. glades (think Fremont's leather flower) and White River Hills' associates. Conversely, there are many plants in the 1978 field guide I’ve never even heard of, much less encountered them in a quadrat. I wonder how many have been extirpated from Missouri either from suppression of natural processes, development, grazing? Thirty four years later, this compact field identification guide with beautiful line drawings remains a valuable document of our state's natural heritage, one worth much more than a quarter.

Friday, February 03, 2012

In dry chert woods

Wednesday's bluebird skies were the perfect setting for going out to the woods, to the nice burned and slicked off woods where I do most of my sampling. These post oak-white oak-black oak woods have burned regularly for the past 5,000 years, actually, and while the grazing impacts can be seen in certain areas, walking through these woods doesn't involve climbing over barbed wire fences like it does in much of the Ozarks.

All the shrubs here have been topkilled by November's fire, so I couldn't really conduct any winter twig browse work. My winter bird surveys are complete for the area, with red-headed woodpeckers stealing the show this year with record numbers counted. Instead, we went on a mission that day to compare our field-tested natural community map to one made from the comfort of a computer modeling program 100 miles away.

Paint the screen in dry chert woodlands and make inclusions where the dry mesic comes into view, mostly in those steep dissections on north facing slopes, maybe in a creek bottom where the grazing impacts can be seen. Throw out the soils layer since it doesn't help at all in distinguishing dry from dry mesic woodlands in this country. When mapping natural communities in the Ozarks, think like a fire--these landscapes are shaped and maintained by fire. In a white oak-sugar maple setting with sedges and fewer prairie-loving forbs, you may be in dry mesic. But in a gama grass stand with stunted black oaks and post oaks, these areas where foresters would claim "you can't take a log," you're likely in dry.

Careers are made around modeling programs in the field of natural history. I've seen multimillion dollar end projects of models of where, for example, glades are located in the Ozarks--visit some of these areas and you'll find open woodlands and no trace of glade vegetation. Landscape models have been published without any ground truthing behind them. In the country I was in this week, if you spend an afternoon hiking through the woods, you'll have a pretty good idea of what most of the area looks like: dry chert woods with glades, small inclusions of dry mesic woods. The soils in ArcView won't tell you that, but walk a little way and you can see it too.

Natural communities are not based on soils and geology alone, and shouldn't be mapped simply using the soils and geology information. Natural communities are more complex, they are distinct assemblages of plants, animals and microorganisms that "occur in repeateable patterns across the landscape and through time. These assemblages of biota occupy definable physical environments, which in turn influence the structure and composition of natural communities." The father of natural communities in Missouri studied under Illinois' Jack White who concepted the idea roughly 40 years ago. These maps, the ones that show a distinct natural community for every soil series, are inaccurate. Just going to the woods one afternoon and studying the canopy composition, ground flora, site condition, slope, aspect, topography, and fire behavior in a given area will tell you much more than you'll ever learn sitting at a desk with a $7,000 computer program.