Friday, December 23, 2016

A Great Day for Birding

Setting out on a Thursday morning, a day of annual leave from my job to go count birds for my Audubon chapter, the dry air couldn't have been more crisp with a relative humidity hovering around 19%. I sent out a general interest question regarding rescheduling our annual Christmas Bird Count, an event that my Audubon chapter has participated in for almost 60 years, usually on the first official Saturday. Last Friday's horrendous road conditions and Saturday's forecast for another lousy weather day sent us to reschedule to Thursday, a nice clement day of 35 degrees, light and variable winds, clear to partly cloudy skies. So I volunteered to canvass the areas that the regular counters couldn't hit because of work or other obligations.

My first site in Section 2 North was a recreational lake surrounded by parkland but dotted with woodlands, and native plantings along the shoreline that follow the contour to the woodland edge. I truly delighted in the explosion of dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows gorging on buttonbush seed; every twig must have hosted one of these birds, almost too many birds to count. Unlike a lot of competitive birders, I didn't join the Christmas Bird Count to rack up species numbers. I do it for the fun, for the delight in seeing wintering birds, to observe behavior and to watch them in their surroundings, and to add to the winter bird data that my chapter has collected for all these years. At this first site I didn't have a huge species list, but the highlights included all of the mockingbirds! Five mockingbirds in the shrub layer, sadly eating bush honeysuckle berries, trash food extraordinaire with no nutritional value. 25 species including a flyover of a sharp-shinned hawk capped the morning at the first area.

Keeping in touch with other count circle members with the internet, I noted that they had not yet seen the golden-crowned kinglet for the circle, a regular species for the area. I spent another hour at the recreational lake and park complex and saw two! Check, 2N got their golden-crowned kinglets. We all missed geese besides Canada goose with all the frozen ponds and other factors which I may not be aware of. At the end of the day, I learned that even at the local wetland complexes we failed to document any snow geese, speckled bellieds, or even a Ross' goose. Bad day for geese, but a good day for woodpeckers. My house happens to rest in the middle of the count circle for 2N, so I was able to document my yellow-bellied sapsucker who hangs out on my cedar and the three red bellieds who visit my feeder everyday.

Count day continued and I was sent to an area south of town to visit a woodland complex, but on the road to the woodlands I saw my first-of-the-day bald eagle, some turkey vultures, and more and more blue jays. I realize a lot of folks aren't crazy about blue jays, but in recent years their numbers were way down due to West Nile Virus which impacted jays and crows alike. I've helped out with the Christmas Bird Count in various parts of Missouri for twelve years and have never seen as many blue jays as I did on Thursday. They really are beautiful birds.

Checking in with my fellow count circle birders, I learned that a nearby state park with a bunch of dead white oaks from the 2012 drought harbored huge numbers of red-headed woodpeckers, hands down my favorite Missouri bird. I have hand carved wooden ornaments of this bird, have secured permission to photos of this bird for professional interpretive panels where appropriate, have paintings of red-headeds and I tend to migrate to woodlands and savannas where this bird is prevalent, so it's nice to hear they're hanging out in a local state park. My count circle got all 7 woodpeckers and brown creeper by noon on Thursday.

The Christmas Bird Count is a national event, so anywhere you visit you may be able to hook up with the local organizers to participate. Our count caught the attention of local press who tagged along with our field trip organizer who published this article in the local paper about our count day. We didn't have our annual tally party-with-chili-supper so missed out on a lot of good camaraderie that we all really appreciate. Because I never ran into any of my fellow counters, I'll be driving all over town tomorrow to deliver rum balls and fudge to my birder friends and meeting at a local watering hole to finally tally all the results once they come trickling in. Keep those feeders filled and you may get a good glimpse of a pretty purple finch or a smattering of white-throated sparrows who like to eat food off the ground.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

117th Christmas Bird Count

After yesterday's miserable driving conditions increased the time of my commute by 2 hours, my Audubon chapter has made the decision to postpone our annual Christmas Bird Count slated for today. While the icy roads yesterday caused horrible wrecks, up to 300 in Missouri in one day (not counting all the cars in ditches), today's driving is expected to be influenced by a wintry mix and plummeting temperatures, which could result in even worse conditions. The decision to postpone was not made lightly; this means no chili supper, no camaraderie while we tally the birds we all saw throughout the area, but rescheduling the count to a weekday, possibly Thursday. None of my Audubon friends are fair weather birders, we've birded in snow and ice before with temperatures around 13F and lower, but the road conditions are expected to be horrible and it's not worth risking more wrecks and injuries.

Meanwhile, the squirrels knocked all the seed out of my feeder onto the ground, which is just as well for my white-throated sparrows who love to eat off the floor. I still haven't seen my usual winter resident yellow-bellied sapsucker, but a report came in that one was spotted in the park a block away. The suet feeder is full, so he just needs to come back for it. I have a brown creeper hanging around my cedars this week, which is always a treat to see, the little bundles of energy hopping up the bark and blending in so well it's almost hard to see them sometimes. At some point today before the temperatures drop and the precipitation begins again, I need to make a trip for more seed.

My Audubon chapter is among many chapters in Missouri conducting Christmas Bird Counts; Springfield's Greater Ozarks Audubon Society is a particularly active chapter, too. Read here for an article in the Springfield newspaper about the data we all collect showing trends in winter bird populations in the Ozarks influenced by climate change. With the wind chill in coming days dipping below zero, take the time to fill your feeders, keep the bird baths full of warm water, and enjoy bird watching from the comfort of your home with a bowl of chili and a glass of Missouri Norton in hand.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Winter in the Interior

I realize we're still in fall according to the calendar, but last week's backpacking trip was reminiscent of cold, hard winter. Frost on the fly of my tent, no moisture in the firewood, and lovely frost flowers at the bases of the wildflowers in my campsite. Having set out in 50 degree temperatures the day before, I didn't pack well enough for the night, and my feet were ridiculously cold all night. Wildfire danger was high with absolutely no rain in the recent past, and I will NEVER be responsible for starting a wildfire because I'm ridiculously cautious with fire, but I can be responsible for containing one. My small stick fire surrounded by three layers of rocks, an established fire pit (created no doubt by Boy Scouts), was not going to escape. Nevertheless, when I left the next day, I piled rocks on top of the embers to make sure there were no rogue embers going crazy in the dry woodland landscape.

The shadows were long, typical of this time of year, but it's so nice to hike without worrying about seed ticks. One stray purple Aster laevis was still in flower but otherwise it was a winter botany hike, lots of blasted out Solidago radula, gattengeri, and so forth. I was there to flag firelines so winter botany wasn't my primary driver. My campsite was the focus that day, trying to get through the flagging to get to my campsite halfway through the unit so I didn't have to set up my tent in the dark. I set up coffee while the screech owls called and was in my tent when the coyotes started their howling.

Winter tent camping leaves a lot to be desired considering that nightfall occurs at 5:30pm, so you're stuck in the tent until you get tired. I once lived by nightfall and daybreak, but that was 20 years ago in a cabin in Arkansas. Pack enough lanterns, batteries, and secure enough kindling for fires, and camping this time of year is fabulous. The short daylengths get me down, make me want to go to bed at 7pm, but soon enough the days will grow longer, the time to comb the catalogs for new kale varieties, and seeing my strawberry plants come back. Meanwhile, I'm loving my white-throated sparrows hitting up the feeders every morning. They have such a low-key chip note but in numbers I know when something is not right, a Cooper's Hawk, a Sharp-shinned hawk coming in. Backpacking season is here, with winter allowing for backcountry exploration. Campstove coffee remains my favorite coffee ever.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

November is Chambourcin Month

With this week's busy fireline flagging schedule and Saturday's early morning birding fieldtrip, I sadly missed the unveiling of St. James Winery's 2016 Nouveau. Beaujolais Nouveau hit the shelves like clockwork on Thursday at the fancy grocery store in my neighborhood, as usual, and just in time for the Thanksgiving table. In past years, I've picked up Missouri nouveau wines to compare to the traditional Beaujolais in a taste test, and so, my tradition in Louisiana will continue but I must score a Missouri varietal soon.

Light bodied, young and fruity red wine is the perfect choice for pairing with turkey and heavy starch sides like dressing and green bean casserole. My Thanksgiving sides tend towards roasted vegetables and stuffed acorn squash, which also pair nicely with a Beaujolais or a Missouri take on the first press. However, since only a handful of Missouri wineries produce the first young and unaged press wine, the Missouri Wine and Grape Board once again designated November as Chambourcin month. Based on no one's opinion but my own, classic Chambourcin is light like an Oregon pinot noir, with a savory and buttery finish. Missouri Chambourcin, like Norton and Traminette, is highly variable ranging from dark and inky wines to the lighter fruitier wines with minimal oak. Indiana wineries are also producing wonderful Chambourcin (and Traminette, for that matter), and Illinois is not far behind. But in Missouri I'm drinking Missouri's Chambourcin. Further, Chambourcin is often used in the production of Nouveau, along with sometimes Corot Noir and St. Vincent.

After a long day of fireline flagging, to celebrate this glorious month I opened one of Phyllis' Meramec Vineyard's Chambourcin to enjoy in my rustic little log cabin. The not-so-great wine stems certainly didn't allow for a full appreciation of this wine, but as usual, it was lovely and perfect for a campfire and s'mores.

It's sad to me Thanksgiving and late fall glossed over with Christmas lights and trees going up all over the place. I love Chambourcin month, I love Beaujolais and all of my fall color clothes. I don't think I've ever had a bad Chambourcin in Missouri, it's really hard to mess up Chambourcin grapes so, usually, if a winery's Norton isn't up to snuff (or is out my price range), I'll buy a Chambourcin. I need to score some Missouri Nouveau and Chambourcin for my annual trek to Louisiana so I'm not stuck with a refrigerator of Natural Light at my dad's house.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Browned Out

In good years with normal weather patterns, by mid October we are afforded cool nights, plenty of rain, presaged by clement summers, which, factors combined, result in spectacular fall color displays in the Missouri Ozarks. Maybe it's just my personal observations, but this year's fall color is seriously lacking in photographic attraction. Even the maples around Hermann and Augusta country which usually allow for foolproof perfect fall color drives are tinged with brown this year with the later cool season, the earlier spring, the dry fall. The panoramic view from the highest point in the Niangua Basin also normally results in breathtaking fall color, but the yellow walnut and hickory leaves are long gone, and the white oak group is changing from fall green to brown. The maroon white oak-yellow hickory-orange sassafras suite of fall color isn't happening this year. In fact, looking at previous photos it should have happened two weeks ago, and now all the trees and shrubs are brown or denuded of leaves from all the high winds.

The warm temperatures persisting into the first week of November and the lack of frost means that a lot of insects who depend on nectar or other plant material are still out and about, trying to forage. Today I saw a sulphur butterfly in my backyard, long after all the asters, goldenrods and bonesets have gone to seed. Are they homing in on neighbors' petunias and chrysanthemums? These horticultural plants just can't be as nutritious as native flora, can they? My across-the-street neighbor has a massive stand of Aster oblongifolius which she rescued from a roadside construction project; this plant continues to bloom in this warm weather with profuse purple ray flowers forming big bushes. Perhaps the stray insects in my yard will find their way across the street. I realize this is micro-scale worry setting in, but this climactic shift across the world is wreaking havoc on wildlife. I just see it more closely in my yard and in the woods I frequent.

So today, donning an old yellow Current River Stream Team t-shirt and raggedy Adidas running shorts, I continued to set up my winter bird feeding operation. The white-throated sparrows are here in droves, and today I saw my first-of-winter brown creeper hanging out on my chinquapin oak. With such a lackluster fall color display, I have been hoarding fall leaves as they end up on the ground. I have collected approximately 50 fall leaves in my plant press that I will preserve in wax paper to hang in my windows this November, inspired (as always) by Meramec Vineyards and Winery. Pay a visit to the tasting room in St. James and you'll see their windows filled with fall leaves preserved in wax paper. Cute. So I'm doing it at home.

The Ozark canopy in Missouri is seriously lacking in fall color this year. My catalpas (which I want to cut down because they don't belong here but offer significant shade in summer months) were very pretty last week, all broadcast in yellow leaves against a bright blue sky. I head south for Thanksgiving where the only fall color exists in exotic tallow trees which are as pretty as Bradford pears in the fall--great color, but horrendously ugly if you understand their impacts to native ecosystems. Climate change is happening now and we have phenology to show it. Bleaching of coral reefs, disappearing glaciers, it's all happening elsewhere, but locally we can see it too. The days of long drives through the woods to photograph Ozark fall color may be a thing of the past. Sadly, we may be past the tipping point of no return.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Persimmon Lore

Driving south on Hwy. 63 this month, it's hard to not take notice of the heavy laden persimmon trees in the fencerows. Last week's high winds knocked the leaves off any tree that was ready for a fall color display, leaving only green and brown leaves in the canopy. But on the fencerows, the persimmons with their bright orange fruit steal the fall color show lately.


I'm fortunate to have a friend with a massive persimmon that is a descendant of the state champion tree from Missouri's Bootheel. This related tree produces ample fruit every fall which brings in all kinds of wildlife, especially white-tailed deer. But if you collect the fruit early enough, just as the plump orange fruits fall to the ground ripe and juicy, one can process enough pulp to make several batches of persimmon bread and cookies. The best recipe for persimmon cookies comes from an old colleague in New Madrid, Missouri. Her recipe is in the local Chamber cookbook which I purchased specifically for it.

So, tonight I washed all of the persimmons and macerated them with a potato masher in a colander, sending the pulp into a Pyrex bowl below. The slimy seeds and skins are headed for my backyard compost heap where undoubtedly the raccoons and opossums will find them and have a grand time. I cut into three seeds to see what the seeds would forecast for winter. Some folks believe that if you split the seed of a persimmon and it looks like a knife, the winter will be icy. A spoon? Lots of snow. A fork? A mild winter. I cut into three seeds and they all resembled spoons. So, at least for this Outer Ozark Border country on Hwy. 63, the forecast is for a lot a of snow. Let's see if it holds true!

Saturday, October 15, 2016

After the Harvest

While September is officially Missouri Wine Month, I particularly like visiting wineries at the end of harvest in October and November. I relish in asking what the harvest looks like each year, though often the folks at the tasting bar say the same thing every time: "Looks great!" Admittedly, it's much more fun to talk to the winemaker or the grower for the real scoop. Like, "the robins ate all the Traminette," or "we're not looking forward to that early frost," and so forth.

In a wise move, the Wine and Grape Board initiated a new rewards program that will hopefully encourage visitation to our state's wonderful wineries. Not all wineries are participating, but there are some new ones that have opened up in the past few years that I haven't visited. I love returning to places I haven't visited in several years to investigate how their wine has changed, whether through the aging process or winemaker experience. I don't necessarily participate in the rewards program (in previous years a passport program)for the swag (though the Missouri Wines logo is really charming and well-executed), but for the experiences and meeting people behind this great agricultural product.

A small cadre of local friends and I are setting out next weekend for a grand tour of the Hwy. 50 wineries to pick up Wenwood Farm Winery's pumpkin wine and maybe White Mule Winery's Norton port, to check in with the German gentleman from Phoenix Winery, and to have a great Missouri winery and fall colors weekend. November is Chambourcin month and several other wineries besides St. James are releasing their Nouveau, but you'll doubtfully find this bright red wine in stores since it's usually produced in limited release. But it's perfect for the Thanksgiving table. If you haven't done so, check out the details of the rewards program here and start traveling!

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Laying Out the Welcome Mat

Last week, on my walk to the gym, I heard over 20 American goldfinches twittering their dizzy call on a busy street in my neighborhood. Several neighbors have converted their front lawns into wide swaths of native plant gardens interspersed with big stands of charismatic sunflowers and zinnias. The goldfinches were mobbing the dying sunflower stalks, stripping the enormous seedheads of all available food. My neighborhood has been transformed in the past 8 years with more and more yards converting to wild gardens that are habitable by wildlife. Members of my neighborhood association are busy posting photos of the red-shouldered and broad-winged hawks that we hear over the backyard, and more native plants including purple coneflowers and Rudbeckias are filling flower gardens. I have too much shade for a full-on wildflower garden, and I seldom see goldfinches at my feeders, but the native plants in my yard must be good for our birds and all of the pollinators that we have documented through the years.

There's not much blooming in the yard right now, but the black-capped chickadees have honed in on all of the available seed from the bumper crop of Silphium perfoliatum, a North Missouri ditch weed but pretty composite that grows like gangbusters in my yard. The Northern cardinals really enjoy the shrub layer of redbuds and dying stalks of Silphium, and the Carolina wrens are quite vocal around my brushpile and fire pit. Many months ago, my local Audubon Society chapter sponsored a showing of a grim documentary about declining songbird populations. Titled The Messenger, not to be confused with some violent crime film by the same name and with Hollywood actors, this documentary should be required viewing for anyone dubious about the state of biodiversity and the onslaught of threats our natural world is facing. Climate change, homogenization, development, they all impact bird life and the rest of the natural world. Most folks reading this weblog are well aware of threats to biodiversity and bird life, and probably many readers feed birds and care about the natural world. This documentary does not end on a happy note, much like all of my Bill McKibben books and anything written about European birds (re: Jonathan Franzen, et al.). I realize that I, personally, cannot make much of an impact on the world, but I try my hardest in the areas I can influence which includes my urban yard.

So, it was fun to read the latest weblog from the National Wildlife Federation this morning touting the importance of allowing boneset, Eupatorium serotinum, to bloom. This white flower is blooming profusely in my yard right now; it's a plant not loyal to high quality areas, but along with the asters, goldenrods, virgin's bower, ageratum and the bristly sunflower hanging on, my yard has been a buffet to wasps (especially ichneumon wasps), bees, flies, butterflies, and spiders. The NWF article promoted the importance of small patch habitat such as yards to all suites of wildlife, especially pollinators. This late in the season, but still with warm temperatures, it's important to wildlife to keep one's wild garden wild. The goldfinches found my Echinacea seeds and all of the other birds who frequent my yard have found a veritable buffet, which is just as I had intended. I keep the birdbath filled and clean--with the pokeweed berries now in their prime, the birdbath often turns into water tinged with purple dye. I'm not taking down my pokeweed, nor my wildflowers going to seed, but keeping the birdbath clean and full.

In recent years, especially with the popularity of NWF's Backyard Habitat program, some research is underway measuring the direct impacts of naturalized habitat versus traditional yards with lawns and boxwood. I have seen at least one study, but it doesn't take any research to let me know that I have many birds, butterflies and other insects visiting my yard on a regular basis. The time is coming for my regular purchases of 40 lbs. of seed, blocks of suet, regular warming of the birdbath water, but for now, I'm enjoying the native display and hoping the wildlife I enjoy viewing in my yard are at least finding a habitable place to spend a few hours.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Homogenization, Strictly Observation

Driving south on Hwy. 54 towards Lake of the Ozarks two years ago in May, I first saw it--big stands of Princess Tree in full bloom on the roadside. This fast-growing species, Paulownia tomentosa, covered in pretty purple flowers each spring, is native to China and is a documented exotic invasive plant in the warmer climates of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. I first learned of Princess Tree from Arbor Day pamphlets that arrived in our mail in the late 1980s, circulated in an effort to encourage homeowners to plant trees, any trees, to provide shade. The flowers are pretty, almost like a purple Catalpa flower, and bloom on long stalks as the large ovoid green leaves come out to provide shade.

During my tenure in the Southeast Missouri Lowlands, I encountered Princess Tree in a lawn setting, planted surely because it's pretty and, again, fast-growing. The climate in the Bootheel ten years ago was reminiscent of Western Kentucky and Northern Arkansas, what with slightly less cruel winters, warmer temperatures and more rain than in the Osage River basin. As has been reported for several years now, the growing seasons and USDA planting maps have shifted north: folks in St. Louis can now grow camellias outside, friends in New Orleans are growing papayas, and the warmer climate has allowed me to grow kale year round. Not only have the gardening maps shifted due to warmer weather, but now a new group of southern exotic species are creating a foothold in the Ozarks. The warmer temperatures and milder winters have not just encouraged Princess Tree to explode around Lake of the Ozarks, seemingly overnight, but also the ornamental Pampas grass, the scourge of South Louisiana swamps, and Miscanthus, a common ornamental that is now invading glades around Branson.

I don't know how Princess Tree and Pampas grass with its huge white plume and vicious blades arrived in the Ozarks, but I see them frequently on roadsides. Just as I blinked one year and found an entire woodland filled with bush honeysuckle to a point that nothing else exists there, these southern invasive species seem to be thriving in what was once a too cold climate for them. I realize roadsides are not necessarily high quality ecosystems to begin with, but they can serve as vectors into intact systems. With so many exotic invasive species already in Missouri, I don't know how our ecosystems can deal with any more. But new ones are here and doing quite well.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Grapes for Sale!

Asters and goldenrods are starting to bloom, crisp air is moving in, and grape harvest is fully underway across the Ozarks. Drive along I-44 in St. James and see the quaint grape stands selling delicious Concords, grape pies, jam, and all kinds of grapey goodness. This is the year I am going to try my hand at making Norton wine (from juice--at this time I lack all of the expensive equipment to start from grapes). But for those with crushers, stemmers, and everything else needed to process grapes, Meramec Vineyards is selling Norton grapes for .75$ a pound, and Concord and Catawba grapes for even less. Phyllis' Norton wine from Meramec Vineyards is really quite nice and ages very well. I hope that when the day comes that I have my own equipment I'll find an equally good deal on Norton grapes. I picked up a gallon of frozen Concord juice and designer yeast, just waiting on Norton juice to start my own fermentation.

The awesome collaboration between Rolla's Public House Brewery and St. James Winery that resulted in a fantastic brewpub in the St. James Winery parking lot has also encouraged the brewery to experiment with grape juice in their beer making enterprise. The Brewmaster's Select Vignoles IPA sold out earlier this week, but rumor holds they will be making it again, as well as other grape-infused beers such as a Norton Stout (I just may drink a beer when that one comes out.)

Friday, August 26, 2016

Glades in August

I never tire of hiking through well-managed, high quality glades in Missouri. Earlier this week, I paid my third visit since April to a stellar dolomite glade in the Niangua Basin to see the beginning of the end of flowering periods. This glade and the adjacent woodlands were burned in January, and every visit since then I've seen increasingly more and more flowering plants in both the woodlands and the glade.

We are in the period of yellow composites, Rudbeckia missouriensis, the Silphiums, the late summer Helianthus occidentalis, blazing stars, all in full flower and serving as magnets for suites of pollinating insects. Unfortunately, I don't know my skippers well at all, but I know I recognized three different species on the brief, casual hike through the composites. Appropriately managed glades are in full bloom now, with the ladies' tresses orchids coming on soon. The woodland Spiranthes orchids are blooming (S. vernalis, especially) and the glade-specific species should be blooming in late September. This site is home to a true motherlode of S. magnicamporum, a glade-specific plant that numbers in the thousands on the dolomite glades here.

Busting through the understory and hiking through glades these days results in covering one's trousers, legs, ankles and abdomen in literally millions of seed ticks, little specks of brown insect life that causes unending itching and redness. Trousers with duct tape around the ankles, horrible chemical spray covering pantlegs and shirt sleeves is required. On Monday, I plan to set out into pristine woods with no trails to flag out firelines for the upcoming prescribed fire season. A heavily chlorinated swimming pool is a necessity after being covered in seed ticks but is unfortunately not in the cards on Monday night. A shower with a brisk scrubbing will have to suffice. Firelines must be flagged. Burn plans must be written. Preparations for the upcoming prescribed season must be made to maintain stellar places like this one.

Monday, August 22, 2016

August is Vignoles Month

It's very fitting that the Missouri Wine and Grape Board designated this sunny late summer month as a time to celebrate the highly diverse Vignoles. Harvest of this lovely white wine grape begins this week in some areas across the state, and wineries are offering special pairings to highlight the rich flavor of my second favorite Missouri white wine (Traminette is #1, Seyval Blanc is #3).

For the record, I very rarely buy white wine; even though there are many fine, supple dry whites in Missouri, I tend to spend my money on the dry reds. Since I don't have a refined palette for the dry whites, I can say that Vignoles reminds me most of the French whites I drank in summers in New Orleans: big, crisp, somewhat buttery (not like a Chardonel), more floral (but not quite so much as Traminette. Since I like flowers, I like Traminette above all the others), sometimes with notes of melon and even green apples. I generally like Vignoles with hard, strong cheeses like Asiago. My fellow Missouri wine-loving friend buys herself Nortons and Vignoles for her partner who tends to prefer the sweeter wines. It's a good gateway wine from sticky Muscat to the dry whites.

All of the rain this summer may make this year's vintage less concentrated as compared to, say, the droughty 2012. Grapes are fat and happy on the vines this August and we're one year away from the total eclipse that will be visible where I live where wine lovers will flock to the blufftop winery and enjoy bottles of Vignoles while watching the sky darken. Ste. Genevieve wine country will also be ground zero for the eclipse, so start booking reservations now....

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Before the Levee Breaks

Tripping the light fantastic on a steamy Wednesday afternoon, I pitched camp on an Ozark streambank, a particularly high quality natural community rich with plant life and, in the stream's riffles, brightly colored darters and several species of minnows. Mayflies that next morning were heavy above the fog line on this springfed stream, a visible thick mat of mayflies that coated every surface of my campsite. While I was enjoying a late summer morning on an Ozark stream, the forecast for my former home in South Louisiana was not as pleasant. Tropical patterns were forming, with the forecast of a 500 year flood event slated to occur on all of our rivers outside of Baton Rouge and Denham Springs. Lafayette was also ground zero for the significant rain event. But I was on an Ozark stream earlier this week with no hint of rain.

As reports came in from home this weekend, with unending rain in south Louisiana and no end in sight, I learned of thousands of homes underwater, many friends who lost everything, water rescues from rooftops a la Hurricane Katrina, rivers exceeding their flood stage by 6 ft. and more, and the rain still coming. Because I'm not down there, I don't know if the local stations are reporting about climate change and the direct correlation between these heavy rain events and the changing climates. Hell, my friends and family are without cell phone service with AT&T totally knocked out, so the prospect of major analysis is likely forthcoming, if at all. Hot meals are being delivered to the dorms since most of the roads are closed around major universities and, until today, there was a curfew in place. All because of devastating flooding.

Last month, I was privileged to read a private report (prepared for a colleague from another outfit) from climatologists from Missouri State University that included an analysis of rainfall events in Missouri since the 1950s. Because the report is not public information, I can digest it to explain that since the early 2000s, rain events in the Ozarks, especially the watershed in their study site, have become more intense. More rain over a shorter time duration, so more flash flooding. What this means for this particular watershed is that runoff is faster, more intense, with higher rainfall amounts that causes flash flooding on a regular basis. Perhaps this seems less like rocket science, like a study that shows that squirrels eat acorns, but it is a study on an Ozark watershed and I do hope that soon the information will be widely available (working on that...).

What this unpublished, non-public report shows is that heavy rainfall events have increased in frequency and intensity in the past ten years, corresponding positively to the increasing carbon levels. This huge, spinning storm that is causing catastrophic flooding in Louisiana is heading our way. Springfield has already received 3 inches of rain. Forecasts for the St. Francois Mountains country call for 9 inches of rainfall in two days. After the 10 inch-rain event in December that left Union completely underwater and caused our Ozark streams to become perennially polluted with every known and unknown sewage lagoon and pit latrine, while not forgetting all of the cattle grazing in the watersheds, this next round of flooding is less than desirable.

I'm glad I was able to visit the stream when it was still in good condition. Images from home of nice little rivers like the Vermilion and the Ouiska Chitto roiling like chocolate milk are heartbreaking. Mussel diversity was once high in these streams. The sediment and pollution spreading out throughout southeast, southwest, and south Louisiana are going to not only wreak havoc on homesteads but on wildlife habitat as well. According to weather forecasters, we should be prepared for more of this. The spinning storm is heading our way. Make sure your basements don't have boxes of books on the floor.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Late Summer

It must have been clockwork. My local grocery store turned a switch on July 5, 12:00am. The whole store was bedecked in all-American gear, bunting, flags, pinwheels, and by midnight on July 4, all of that was discounted to 90% off and replaced with Back to School items. Ugh. Crisp folders, lunch boxes with Hello Kitty emblems. While there's much to be loved by the smell of freshly sharpened Dixon-Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils with all that wood smell and fresh lead, it's still summer! The chanterelles have just come out strong, the sunflowers are now blooming, and the suite of cicadas with the varying calls are out throughout the day and night. It's not time for back to school and pumpkin ale!

What with the moist weather, the frequent rains, I still see the leaves of wild ginger and other spring wildflowers, blooms long gone, but vegetation persisting. The rains have resulted in quite a bit of issues, not all positive, with significant flooding in quality watersheds that now have high levels of cyanobacteria and gravel accretion in the streams. I'm not accustomed to early August vegetation being green and in flower, but it is as it is, and it's certainly due to these frequent rain events, more moisture, and unnatural patterns. The katydids are still churning, with their nightly "wrent, wrent, wrent" calls. Summer is still alive and well despite the push in the commercial world to promote Halloween. Tomatoes and peaches are widely available at farmer's markets; check out all those stands that are popping up on rural roads. Man, they have some great summer produce. While I love Missouri apples, I'm not ready for them to replace the peaches.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Chanterelle Season

The 10% chance of rain on Friday turned into a steady downpour which left the woods in an incredibly steamy state. Hiking through some hay fields and into the dissected terrain rich with large white oaks and a relatively poor understory of sedges and little else, my trouser legs were soaked only twenty steps in. Nevertheless, a day in the woods beats any day at a desk, and a day in the woods with a stellar mycologist is even better.

When I first moved to Missouri, I gobbled up every kind of natural history information I could gather, so impressed with the intact nature of many thousands of acres. By late June in the chert woodlands where I worked, small, brilliant orange mushrooms began to appear on a trail growing upon relatively bare soil. They weren't very big at all, but my trusty colleague identified them as chanterelles, edible mushrooms that grow each summer throughout Missouri. I collected a few, washed off the dirt that had kicked up on the underside, and sauteed them just as I did regular button mushrooms: olive oil, Cajun seasoning, garlic, and red wine. These little guys barely made a side dish, but they were certainly scrumptious.

The relatively regular rain events in the northern reaches of the Ozarks this summer has resulted in a bumper crop of the beefy, much larger chanterelles, Cantharellus cibarius. On the steamy Friday afternoon, days after I had mentioned to my mycologist friend that I would gladly accept a donation of chanterelles this summer, we came upon a hillside chocked full of large, fresh, beautiful chanterelles. These weren't the small ones I first met, these are huge mushrooms, so large that it would only take two to cover a pizza. The serious mycologist carries paper bags and a knife on forays into the woods. We left the patch to finish our scouting event, and came upon two more hillsides covered in bright mushrooms, patches so large one could spot them many hundred feet away. We had to collect. I was giddy with excitement when my friend handed me a knife to cut the mushrooms at the base so as to keep the mud off of them (easier to clean that way). We filled three sacks on one patch.

Not only has this been a great summer for chanterelles, but for many other kinds of mushrooms. There's a toxic look-alike to chanterelles in Missouri, so before any foraging of edible mushrooms, take extreme caution and positively identify them. I'm fortunate to know a scholarly mycologist. After our trip to the woods, I brought him to my house to help identify the fungi growing in the backyard. The squirrels and insects are doing a great job of devouring them all, but a few remained intact and now I have a curated list for the yardforest! Spending time with experts in the field of natural history is fabulous. I never want to stop learning. Oh, and my large batch of chanterelles will be prepared in many different ways with so many delectable recipes highlighting the natural flavor of this beautiful mushroom.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Classic Eminence

The morning cicada chorus began around 9am that early July afternoon. The night before, I heard my first katydids of the summer through my open window. Summer's wildflower displays are coming on in full force, the perfect time for a hike through the woodlands to the Eminence glade that stretches almost 8 acres along a steep ridge. This may be one of the best examples of an Eminence dolomite glade in the area.

Usually when I'm sampling glades, I will encounter scattered Buchnera americana, sometimes ending up in my plots. The lovely blue flower was dominant across the expanse and in bloom that day. The flowerheads of Rudbeckia missouriensis will be in flower in the upcoming weeks, and the blazing stars are only now beginning to bloom. Of course, no good day hiking comes without seed ticks, but they weren't nearly as pervasive as in other parts of the state, which is notable especially having seen direct evidence of a browse line in the woods.

I remain in awe of insect diversity in nice systems like this one. Blooming plants are covered with nectaring bees and flies, and there are so many species of true bugs that I can't even fathom learning them all. I've started with learning the insects in my yard which is full of generalist species that can manage in a highly fragmented system, but in an intact landscape of 17,000 acres managed with occasional and responsibly applied prescribed fire? I wouldn't even know where to begin to learn all of them. Botany is hard, it's really challenging, but entomology -where the subjects MOVE- is a field I would need three lifetimes to learn. It is certainly fun learning, though.

It would be interesting to collect data on high quality examples of Eminence glades to compare the different regions of the expression and then to compare to Jefferson City-Cotter glades. If this was the year 1800, it would be easier to assess true differences, but with today's highly damaged and altered systems, it's tricky to make these kinds of determinations when so few undamaged systems exist in the modern age. Regional differences are easier to see--e.g., all the of species restricted to the White River Hills versus the restricted species on the arc of Jefferson Co. glades. For example, what is behind the distribution of Echinacea simulata on Eminence glades in the southern Ozarks compared to these northern glades where this species is absent? Is it extirpated? Was it there historically? Or is there some range issue that is despite similar rock type and structure. And that's just one species. It sounds like a fun project, nonetheless, to sample glades of specific dolomites, the different igneous, limestone series and sandstones. This sounds like a project for retirement.

Monday, July 04, 2016


On this rainy holiday weekend, I fondly look back to Friday, a clement July 1st spent in the woods of the Niangua Basin. I went to this beautiful, often burned private land of almost 1,000 acres with one road, a couple of hay pastures in the creek bottoms, but mostly woodlands and glades that have basically remained untouched barring landowner-set fires. Almost 13 acres of glades and open, grassy woodlands full of warm season grasses and tons of prairie clovers are serving pollinators and the bird community here quite well.

I don't know when the last time someone hiked around this area that has no real access, but I didn't see any deer stands, footpaths, developments or even old logging roads that day. This backcountry area was full of bird life and signs of successful nesting. Four little Kentucky warblers were looking for food from their parents in a shrubby area. We flushed a goatsucker protecting her young, watching closely where we stepped thinking she was still on eggs; two steps forward and we came across the two young while the adult charged at us. Quickly, we headed upslope to leave her to her job after snapping one photo with a telephoto lens. At the crest of the primary ridge, we came up to a big post oak with a couple of young broad-winged hawks circling, potentially another big nest.

Because this area is so secluded, there were no exotic species infestations, no recent logging evidence, just classic undulating dry chert woodlands, some mesic limestone-dolomite forest with green violets carpeting the area, some moist dolomite cliffs, and these great glades with thick cover, no major grazing here. The creeks had a little water, but lots of fish, crayfish and water striders; I feel confident that this entire rainy weekend brought some much needed rain to the watershed. It brought three inches to my basement.

I love knowing places like this still exist in private ownership. This family has been an incredible steward to this landscape. I know the birds thank them.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

On Grass

The annual prairie sampling event occurred earlier this week under clear skies and warm conditions. Sampling across various natural communities always coincides with the beginning of grass court tennis and the finale, the Wimbledon Championship. Of course, the Race to Wimbledon, the minor grass court tournaments including Aegon and other English tournaments, is seldom aired on network television, only on the Tennis Channel. Thankfully, the "Tennis Channel Lite" is available through our computer since we do not own a television. So, I've been able to see these young whipper snappers like Thiem and Zverev whiz through the brackets of old veterans in the minor tournaments. Sadly, I still have to go elsewhere to see the grand slam tournaments since they're blacked out on Tennis Channel Lite.

I just finished completing my bracket this morning and went with my heart for the final--Murray and Roger with Roger winning the cup. I realize it will probably be Djokovic who wins the Championship, but my loyalty is with Roger. My bracket resulted in some hard decisions such as Nishikori meeting Gasquet and I love them both (so it doesn't really matter who wins, I wish they both could. I went with Gasquet in my bracket). The French Open was so ridiculously unpredictable that I just stopped looking at my bracket standings after the third round. Hard working players like Vesely and Bautista-Agut are back for Wimbledon, along with one of my new favorites, Taylor Fritz, a fabulous young talent reminiscent of 2006 Federer.

So, as fieldwork continues despite Wimbledon, the search begins for restaurants in the Ozarks with Direct TV with premium channels including the Tennis Channel (217). Applebee's and Ruby Tuesday carry it, along with L'il Rizzo's in Osage Beach--these are known locations. Later rounds are usually aired on ESPN, probably much to the chagrin of other sports enthusiasts. "Aw, dammit! Tennis! Who watches TENNIS?!" I know my Wimbledon bracket is not air tight by any stretch; it's more of a Fantasy Tournament bracket. Maybe this will be as fun as the 2008 Men's Final, my favorite match of modern tennis (being re-aired today on the Tennis Channel today at 1:00pm!). Let the games begin!