Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Devastating Floods

Records rivaling the floods of 1993 have been broken on the Meramec River today, the announcement coming on the heels of horrific photos of an entire house being carried swiftly downstream. The Ozarks normally see heavy rain events in April and in November, but Christmas flooding on this level cannot be explained away as the effects of an El Nino. Roads around the Gasconade River remain closed as I write following another trip to the St. Louis Airport where I saw most of St. Charles underwater. This is not a natural event, this cannot be a natural event. One report from Highway 19 along the Current River is that river levels shot up to 30 ft.

I have navigated FEMA before in New Orleans and I will undoubtedly be brushing off my bureaucratic skills to work with them again in coming weeks and months once the damage has been assessed. From what I see tonight and in the past few days, the damage is severe. Very sad days for Missouri.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Winter Birding

The bright sunlight streams through the dirty windows unimpeded by the leafy canopy in my yard, casting long shadows on my equally dirty hardwood floors. Winter mornings, though hardly winter weather lately, include a routine of taking the dogs to the backyard while also filling the bird feeders, cleaning and refilling the bird bath, and restocking the suet cakes in the feeders hanging from the trees around the laundry line. The winter bird season was off to a great start last month with high numbers of dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows but the warm weather (or better feed elsewhere) has resulted in lackluster backyard birding. But it's winter bird survey and Christmas Bird Count week, so I'm getting my fill of seeing interesting birds in their natural habitat, in the woodlands and glades and streambanks of the Ozarks.

I take particular delight in finding the Missouri winter residents who spend their breeding season in the Boreal forests of Canada. Not only do we regularly see signs of yellow-bellied sapsuckers, the regular drumming in concentric circles around lots of different trees, but we know that we will regularly see these charismatic woodpeckers in a certain area. Like clockwork, we added them to our species list, lovely males showing up in the same area every year. We actually found them in more areas this year than in years past, this year serving as the 12th annual winter bird survey in one of my favorite places in the Western Ozarks.

With the weather patterns shifting to warmer temperatures, and birds able to find insects even in December, our total numbers were down this year. We documented 42 species with a notable lack of waterfowl in a freshwater spring which usually supports bufflehead, mallards, wood ducks, and blue-winged teal. No ducks this year, no cormorants basking in the warmth, and no kinglets flitting about from high to low branch. It wasn't the best birding week, but we kept with our protocol, our regular dates, our regular route, and were pleased to see that the Eastern bluebirds were still out on the south-facing slopes at 8am on a sunny morning. There is little in the world more beautiful than an Eastern bluebird couple in a post oak on a bluebird sky bright winter morning.

Maybe because I've run this winter bird survey route for 12 years, I predicted when we would see our hermit thrush. The only place I've seen the hermit thrush, Missouri's primary winter thrush besides the American Robin, is on a crummy cedar-filled trail through a bottomland woodland. The characteristic tail-bobbing of the hermit thrush was easier to spot than the breast and coloration. For 12 years running, we've seen the hermit thrush in the same area. Surely it's not the same bird, but there must be something in this landscape, this little patch of crummy cedars surrounded by fire-mediated awesome post oak-white oak-black oak woodlands that attracts hermit thrush. Check! We got it. We never found our kinglets, neither of them, actually, but picked up a suite of sparrows at a crummy fencerow with cedars and brush. A big part of me hates that some of the best birding is in crummy anthropogenic landscapes, but I also appreciate that even in our most damaged landscapes birds can still exist and thrive, at least during winter months.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

My 2015 Best of the Missouri Ozarks

I recently returned from a few days in the woods and nights in a really fantastic cabin. At the end of the year, many compile their lists of favorite music recordings, movies, and others, and I have been fortunate to spend a lot of time traveling the Ozarks this past year, I felt it incumbent that I would share my favorite places from this year. 2015 marks my ten year anniversary as a full time resident of Missouri and there are still a number of places I keep intending to visit but are pushed out of the way for reliable stand-bys. Further, a good number of great natural places have been destroyed in recent years, some great coffeeshops and wineries have closed, development has impacted the rustic nature of a lot of great spots and the wonderful cabins at Big Spring are still closed for renovation. So here's a list of my 2015 "Bests," not all time, but just from this past year.

Best Float Trip in 2015: Easy. The best (too short)float of the year was when my kid sister from Jackson Hole, Wyoming came to Missouri for a long weekend and we floated the Current River stretch from Baptist Camp to Akers Ferry. I told her in no uncertain terms that I do not recreate on Ozark rivers on weekends, so she would have to fly in early in the week. The beautiful weather and the popularity of the river stretch (chosen by us because it was close to home) brought out the motley assortment of domestic disputes and loud radios which certainly put a damper on the float. I explained that on a Tuesday in February it's just not like that. Nevertheless, the Baptist Camp to Akers Ferry float is a great 8 mile float which, in winter, can easily be stretched out into an overnight float with a few remaining secluded gravel bars, good fishing if you're into that kind of thing, and not too many roads allowing access from non-floaters. Regardless of the rowdiness of a random Thursday afternoon, my kid sister had fun and we look forward to the day when she brings her family to Current River country.

Best Float Outfitters in 2015:This one is a little bittersweet. I do love Akers Ferry Canoe Rentalbecause they are always open and they manage a fabulous stretch of the Current River, and they're close to home. However, I have historic particular fondness for a stretch of the Niangua River (another close to home stretch) that is currently being beat up from every development angle. The float outfitters at Ho-Humm are really lovely people. Ho-Humm offers winter floats and random day floats which, like Akers Ferry, allow floating to your car. The last time I went to Ho-Humm my friend there was not in good health. The river's health is declining dramatically and rapidly, as well. I am grateful I had the opportunity to regularly float the Bennett to Ho-Humm or Prosperine Access ten years ago. The river scene has changed, and not for the better ecologically or recreationally.

Best Cabin Rentals in 2015:

My favorite cabins this year include an old standby, the Royal W Resort in the White River Hills (pictured). Cindy is a wonderful hostess and these little 1950s cabins have small kitchenettes, comfortable beds, and Cindy's homemade soap in each bathroom. The Royal W Resort is a Cora Steyermark site for Ozark least trillium, a population of which the resort owners are well aware and protective. Also down in White River country is the Timbers Resort and Lodge near Shell Knob. Rustic but modern cabins with fireplaces and Christmas decorations in December, a very nice touch. These cabins have full kitchens and are located on Glade Lane, a drive through a huge stand of Ashe's juniper.

Best Coffee in 2015: This is a very important category and will undoubtedly result in my being chastised by friends. Coffee is vital to function and it must be available and fresh at all times of the day and night. It must be available in all reaches of tiny towns and small roads. If an option presents itself, such as needing coffee during normal working hours and an independently owned coffeeshop is nearby, I will invariably opt for that. However, McDonald's coffee is consistently reliable and there are McDonald's restaurants all over the place serving good, reliable, and inexpensive coffee at all hours of day and night. I cannot manage Folger's or any other robusto beans that are often served at diners and cafes. So, independent coffeeshops or McDonald's. Casey's gas stations apparently have good coffee but I haven't tried it yet.

Best Norton in 2015: Noboleis Vineyards, the beautiful setting on rolling hills near Augusta, has produced a Norton Reserve that is absolutely stunning. There are so many capable Nortons being produced in Missouri, but the Noboleis 2012 Norton Reserve knocked my socks off. As with all other Nortons, this one should be served in the Reidel Norton stem. This is not a gravel bar wine to be consumed out of a plastic cup.

Best Wildflower Display in 2015: The wet spring resulted in robust wildflower displays in May and June. On a hike in late May through a glade belt in the Niangua Basin (burned in February 2015), the explosion of Echinacea was matched with every other awesome glade plant that appeared to be on steroids. Spring and summer 2015 were very flowery, providing beautiful memories to take us through these short and cloudy days of mid-December.