Saturday, February 22, 2014

Twig Browse Time

After three days of much needed sun and highs in the 40s, only small patches of snow remained in this exquisite post oak woodland filled with warm season grasses and the churling calls of red-headed woodpeckers. As late February rolls around, just before all the tender shoots of herbaceous vegetation come up in the spring, deer begin looking for the fresh green buds of woody shrubs for forage. By examining how many buds have been browsed, one can determine how much pressure a deer population is having on the landscape.

My twig browse surveys have occurred here every winter since 2008. Since then, in combination with aerial deer censuses and sampling of deer exclosures to calculate deer impacts on the herbaceous layer, I’ve seen the deer population fluctuate from a high of 75 deer/mi2 to a manageable 20 deer/mi2. During these past seven years, I’ve also amassed a list of ice cream shrubs for deer, those shrubs that deer prefer to browse compared to the unpalatable species. The ice cream shrubs, much like the herbaceous ice cream plants, really get hit on the nose during winter months, sometimes to the degree that they can’t flower since all the buds have been clipped off.

Deer do seem to love aromatic sumac, smooth sumac, white oak, post oak, and sassafras. Discovering heavy browse on these species generally indicates a lot of deer activity in the woods, but when the unpalatable species are being clipped at the same rate, plants like buckeye and black oak, then the deer population is probably pretty well out of control, indicating they're desperate enough to eat plants they don’t really prefer.

By the end of the day, I had counted 314 browsed stems of aromatic sumac, and 165 unbrowsed which resulted in 65% browsed. Dogwood: 81 browsed, 99 unbrowsed, 45% browsed. Sassafras: 731 browsed, 934 unbrowsed, 43% browsed. Smooth sumac: 226 browsed, 38 unbrowsed, 85% browsed. And black oak, a plant deer don't seem to like too much: 93 browsed, 161 unbrowsed, 36% browsed, which is pretty high for an unpalatable species.

The deer exclosures are equally revealing, with species richness and abundance greater in the protected exclosures and the absence of signature species for the area. No asters, goldenrods, even wild petunia are present outside the exclosure. Beyond the cattle fencing it's a monoculture of dogbane, sedges, some crotons and wild rye. Sadly, I've seen this transformation occur in the past 7 years. Deer are having a serious negative impact on biodiversity in Missouri, and hardly anyone notices because so few of us are looking.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Great Backyard Bird Count: 120 Species in Missouri!

We're at the halfway mark for the Great Backyard Bird Count, and Missouri birdwatchers have submitted hundreds of checklists so far. Among the findings, a Hickory Co. birder recorded a sedge wren, someone has tallied a spotted towhee, and I saw at least one record for a LeConte's sparrow. Missouri has documented 120 species so far, up from 109 on Saturday morning. The Explore Data tab on the GBBC website allows one to narrow the search to a town, a state, a country and to pull up individual checklists. Visit here for the Missouri checklist so far.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

When there's snow on the ground...

Successive snow events and poor travel conditions for the past few weeks have kept me stuck inside suffering from serious cabin fever. While the Ozarks are still mantled in several inches of snow, I finally paid a visit this week to a dry dolomite woodland-glade complex in Current River country, the site of restoration efforts for the past couple of months. Winter is an ideal time for cedar removal. This particularly stickery and labor-intensive activity involves limbing up mature trees and piling branches in small heaps to prepare for burning. A lot of sweat equity goes into cedar removal projects, and trying to conduct these projects in the heat of summer and early fall can be downright unbearable. In winter months, burning the freshly cut piles provides a campfire setting to warm by, which is nice when you're soaked in sweat from hauling cedar logs all over the place.

Not only are winter cedar removal projects easier on folks doing the work, but also easier on fragile glade ecosystems with the vegetation well dormant, the ground frozen to avoid soil disturbance from trampling. Unfortunately, I've seen cedar removal projects conducted by a certain agency in Missouri that involved the use of heavy machinery rather than a team of workers with chainsaws. This heavy handed management typical for this agency is patently destructive and has resulted in significant erosion, soil disturbance, and the utter ruination of glade-woodland ecosystems throughout the state. However, most conscientious landowners are aware that proper glade restoration efforts involve cutting cedars, burning cedars when they're green to avoid the heat of red needle stage and avoiding large brush pile development under old growth chinquapin and post oaks that are an integral part of the system. I think most people I work with in Missouri are pretty well versed in this old and established process. Well, except for the practitioners from that aforementioned agency.

However, there's a greater benefit to cedar removal projects when there's snow on the ground, and it involves the cleanup of all those cedar boughs and logs. Burning green, freshly cut cedars results in a total burn with no remnant logs and skeletons. And when there's snow on the ground, especially the 4 to 10 inches we've had lately, burning those cedar piles results in very little scarification. With snow and ice on the ground below the green cedar piles, the heat from the fire wasn't even enough to burn the residual leaf litter below. While most cedar removal projects that involve burning brushpiles invariably end up with sacrifice areas that will eventually be recolonized with native vegetation, a lot of sacrifice areas turn into moss patches for at least a few years. From a largescale landscape perspective, these dots on the glade barely make a dent in the overall quality of the glade (though if the glade is particularly small, isolated, and not part of a larger system, these sacrifice burnpile areas can certainly seem like a very destructive impact of cedar clearing). But burn when there is a mound of snow beneath the piles and the burnpile will look like this after the fire with ash settling on leaf litter:

Across this 12 acre restoration unit nestled in a landscape of similar high quality and old growth structure, the site of brushpiles from the cedar removal exercise this winter won't even be noticeable in June when I return to the site for vegetation sampling. Snowpack, you're making winter walks in the woods a little monotonous, but you've done a great job of protecting fragile Ozark soils.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Great Backyard Bird Count: February 14-17

Every year, just before President's Day weekend, I make a long run to the nice wild bird store in town to stock up on birdseed and suet for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count. This global citizen science event sponsored by Cornell Ornithology Lab takes place every winter and is made stronger by the number of participants and checklists submitted. But counting birds for the event isn't restricted to your yard, but you can submit checklists from natural areas, parks, and anywhere else birds visit.

The requirements are simple: count the birds you see for the duration of at least 15 minutes at a time. Of course, you can spend the day birding, or a few hours, or even several smaller increments throughout the holiday weekend. The really fun part of the event is exploring the data to find out what areas near you have been surveyed, what other parts of the world are seeing, and so forth. Visit the Great Backyard Bird Count website at for more details, registration, and data entry.

If you live in the Columbia area, the local Audubon chapter will be hosting a Feeder Crawl, a chance to visit members' yards to watch the birds that come to their feeders:

Saturday, Feb 15, 2014 GBBC Backyard Bird Feeder Crawl Departure Point: Songbird Station. 2010 Chapel Plaza Ct #C, Columbia, MO The 2014 Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) will take place Friday, February 14, through Monday, February 17. The Great Backyard Bird Count is an annual four-day citizen science event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of where the birds are. You’ve heard of a Pub Crawl? Well, to help celebrate the 2014 GBBC, CAS is having a Backyard Bird Feeder Crawl! We’ll carpool to various backyard bird feeders in and around the Columbia area. At each backyard feeder we’ll count birds for 15 minutes or more, submit our checklist to eBird and then “crawl” to the next location. Meet at Songbird Station’s parking lot at 8 a.m. The trip will be 3-4 hours long and will return to Songbird Station for coffee and donuts.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Jazz Dinner at Meramec Vineyards

With another week of ice, snow and that annoying "wintry mix" in the forecast, cabin fever is setting in. On Saturday, February 8, 6-9pm, Meramec Vineyards will be hosting the St. James High School Jazz Band for an evening of cool jazz standards from the likes of Thelonius Monk as a fundraiser for a trip to New York. A typically lovely dinner will be served alongside the winery's supple wines, which include a new dry red blend,Ozark Heritage Red. Phyllis throws fabulous parties and serves remarkable food and wine. Details below and on the website. Expect great solos from the band's saxophonist and help this band make their trek to New York City to hear the cool East Coast sounds that pipe out of clubs and Lincoln Center these days.
A very jazzy evening is planned. Meramec Vineyards Bistro has a great dinner menu and live jazz performances lined up for Saturday evening, February 8. Oh, about that road trip. The St. James High School Jazz Band is furthering their music education with a special visit to explore jazz in New York City in April. The profits from this Jazz Dinner Night will help these budding musicians make this trip. Cool. Get ready for "In Walked Bud", a tune written in 1947 by the great Thelonius Monk. Get ready for lots of other jazz standards, too. You dig? The St. James jazz group Combo I consisting of Dylan Bond, Austen Schoenborn, Austin Naber, Anthony Borthocayre, Tyler Sanders, Caralee Lynch, and Jacob Snodgrass will do a set. By the way, Dylan Bond, is one very talented saxophone player and will do some solos during the evening. Watch this rising star who auditioned for and plays with a band in St. Louis. Derek Limback, band director, has more musicians up his sleeve. He has talented jazz teachers lined up to jam with him. The big guys. Yeah, St. James is cool. Take it from here. Call Meramec Vineyards for reservations 573-265-7847. Dinner ($20 plus tip and tax) includes salad, bread, entrĂ©e (choice of Salmon, chicken breast with white wine sauce, stuffed pork loin), two sides, French baguette plus a jazzy dessert. Beverages extra. Seating is from 6 p.m. on with last seating at 8 p.m. Music through the evening until 9 p.m. Meramec Vineyards is located at 600 State Route B, just ¾ mile east of the I-44 St. James exit.