Saturday, March 22, 2014

Harbinger of Spring in White River Country

I set out Wednesday morning under a frosty windshield and temperatures hovering well below freezing. It's taken five years, but the glade mapping project in Missouri is finished with over 80,000 glades mapped in Missouri. Not necessarily in search of spring, we set out to White River country to identify glades for the neighbors to the south. I was, however, expecting more of a floral display for late March in the southernmost regions of Missouri compared to the desolate winter-scape of the northern Ozark Highlands.

We visited all kinds of glades this week--glades with a long grazing history, glades with a hog problem, glades on a substrate not even recorded from the area. But no spring Drabas, no little mustards in flower yet. The only signs of spring were the spring peepers in the ponds and the stray Eastern phoebe calling from the telephone pole.

Hiking through a degraded White River Hills landscape all choked in Eastern red cedar, a deer problem and a hog problem, we made it a good four miles before coming across a raggedy bottomland along a stream that we had to ford to get back to the vehicle. But as we approached the doghair stand of box elders, sycamores and little elms on the streamside, I heard my colleague mutter "bet there's Harbinger of Spring in that bottoms...." Behold! Salt and Pepper, Harbinger of Spring, Erigenia bulbosa, my first of the year in late March! And lots of them scattered all over the bottoms, all in full flower. What's next? The anemones, spring beauty, Common Yellowthroats, and warmer temperatures ushering in the time of year for pruning grape vines in Missouri vineyards, of bluebells along the Jack's Fork and late afternoons of planting greens while watching the insects come to life after a very long winter.

Sunday, March 16, 2014


With the longer day lengths and warmer weather that March has provided, American Woodcocks (also known as bogsuckers and timberdoodles)have begun their mating ritual in Missouri. These charming little ground nesters with big, baleful black eyes are about the size of a robin, though more rotund and with extremely long beaks that allow for probing the ground for earthworms, their primary food source. Timberdoodles winter in the Deep South, and are among the first of our breeding birds to arrive at the first hint of spring.

Timberdoodles inhabit areas near marshy or moist conditions with an open character. Their preferred landscape conditions are ubiquitous in the Ozarks: woodcocks choose edge habitat around wooded settings with vegetative scrubby second growth openings. The breeding display occurs during twilight hours either in the early morning or just after sunset. Males will call with a sound best described as a "peent" (hear the various woodcock calls here) as they rest on the ground. When they make their display flight, they fly high into the air with audible wingbeats similar to a duck, and then descend rapidly in a straight line directly to the ground. The descent is similar to a nighthawk's.

My local Audubon chapter hosted a Timberdoodle Trek last night to a local natural area best characterized as an old field with scattered 10 year old cedars and warm season grasses with small anthropogenic wetlands hosting thousands of spring peepers. As the crepuscular hour set in around 7:15 and our eyes adjusted to the darkening sky, the late day calls of Northern cardinals, American robins and white-throated sparrows filled the air. Big brown bats began flying around randomly hawking insects and the full moon came into view. We heard the first peent of a timberdoodle behind a cedar in a thicket of broomsedge. Several more peent calls occurred and the second call, a warbling t-chok that indicates the presage of a flight, happened. All eyes were on the side of the trail where the birds were located. Around 7:30 a timberdoodle took flight in a straight line above our heads, calling and beating those wings with all his might high up into the sky. The bird ascended a height out of our view and moments later we saw him again as he made a bee-line to the ground. "Peent." Another woodcock in the same area. We saw this one on the ground under a cedar, little brown mass of mottled feathers and that enormous beak. The full moon brightened the sky and we watched as two more timberdoodles performed their mating display.

Timberdoodle chicks are mobile immediately after hatching. They stay close to the ground-based nest and return to the area upon hearing an alarm call from the mother bird. One timberdoodles reach maturity, they generally have a life expectancy of approximately 2 years (though a banded bird was discovered at 7 years old in recent years). When spring comes on full bore, the ancient mating displays will end. March is the ideal time to see these remarkable creatures in their full glory.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Mourning Cloaks and Peepers

The first high pitched bells of the annual spring peeper chorus availed themselves on a 70 degree Monday morning as we set out for the woods. Driving past farm ponds all over the Ozarks you'll hear them, too, the bursting eardrums-loud calls of thousands of diminutive little frogs who congregate in fishless ponds (and even sewage lagoons)in the spring. We never had a February fake-out, days in midwinter when the temperatures climb to spring only to crash hopes by plummeting down into the teens again. But mid-March in the Ozarks is not only shaping up for prime prescribed fire time with low humidities and longer day lengths, but for the slow pace of early spring.

We went looking for Harbinger of Spring but never found it. In a moist sinkhole protected from the fierce winds and fluctuating temperatures, I did find my first spring wildflower, barely poking up through the rich black soil. The mourning cloaks, one of Missouri's few butterflies that overwinter as adults, have broken out and started making daily flights. Later that afternoon, I counted no fewer than 40 cooters hanging out on a log sunning in a streambank. The world is fresh and new and spring is coming on, beginning the cycle again of growth and robustness, of healthy systems and the intricate inner workings of the natural world. Boy, we've had a long winter.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Fish Fry Friday

On Lundi Gras this year, we had a lovely seafood gumbo at our downtown Creole outpost. Since 12th Night, the house has been filled with the music of Professor Longhair, Rebirth, Baby Dodds and every other record that we snagged while living down south, all the sounds of Carnival season...which we missed again this year. Another Mardi Gras is history, and the penitent season of Lent settles in, the time of year of soup luncheons at the Episcopal church and Fish Fry Fridays at local Catholic parishes and Knights of Columbus halls.

I saw the advertisements for fish fry Fridays last week as they popped up in German Catholic country south of Jefferson City. On March 21, Most Pure Heart of Mary in Chamois is hosting a full-on seafood buffet, but on Fridays through Lent (including Good Friday) look for your meatless Friday meal at any of the following K of C halls or local parishes in the Ozarks. Here's a list of fish fries coming up on March 14 in the central Ozarks region:

  • Argyle, K of C fish fry
  • California, K of C fish fry
  • Camdenton, K of C fish fry
  • Eldon, K of C fish fry
  • Hermitage, K of C fish fry
  • Holts Summit, K of C fish fry
  • Jefferson City, K of C Helias #1054 fish fry
  • Jefferson City, K of C Cathedral Council fish fry
  • Lake Ozark, K of C fish fry
  • Rich Fountain, Sacred Heart parish fish fry
  • Rolla, K of C fish fry
  • St. James, K of C fish fry
  • St. Martins, St. Martin School fish fry
  • St. Robert, K of C Lenten fish fry
  • St. Thomas, K of C fish fry

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Winter Remains

Some say that March is Missouri's snowiest month. As we prepare for another round of snow, potentially 8 inches, and ice, potentially crippling, the days of setting out my kale and lettuce seeds seem like months away. I've always heard that lettuce seeds need to be in the ground around St. Patrick's Day, 16 days from now. My compost heap is frozen, and I haven't even seen the first green tips of daffodils yet, so we must have some seriously different weather if the St. Patrick's Day lettuce planting shall commence.

Despite the winter weather, my thoughts have turned to my garden. I lost the battle with cabbage whites last year and never harvested a single stitch of kale or broccoli. I wasn't rigorous enough with my floating row covers, I guess, but neither were my neighbors. None of our gardens produced any kale last spring. I eat kale daily, especially the Russian Red variety I grow which only requires a quick saute in wine, olive oil and garlic. It is my mission to successfully grow kale and broccoli this year as I have every year except 2013.

Also slated to go in the ground in late March is this slow-bolting cilantro that produces well into June, and potentially arugula if I don't instinctively plant every inch of my raised beds in kale, broccoli, and cilantro. There's always plenty of arugula and other loose leaf lettuces at the farmer's market, so I may just be a kale farmer this year.