Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Month of Fire and Norton

As January comes to a close, the days are growing longer and the much brighter light streams into my windows each morning through the bare branches of my black oak, casting wintry shadows on my bedroom wall. Like clockwork, with longer daylengths and drying days, fire weather has dramatically improved in the past few weeks bringing in earnest prescribed fire events across the Ozark Highlands. Fire behavior in January isn't always as polite as it has been this month, and by late February I'll be thinking about the niceties of late January fires: predictable, excellent smoke lift, effective, and without a roar.

The Missouri Wine and Grape Board designated January as Norton Month to celebrate the state's signature bold red wine. Granted, every month is Norton month in my book, what with Norton being my favorite Missouri wine. The Norton Wine Travelers shared a link on what seems to be a different take on the genetic background of the Norton grape; the article reports that the cross may have been with Vitis cinerea, another local grapevine, rather than V. aestivalis. Intriguing. Read the article here.

I didn't collect nearly as many Nortons in January as I had intended to, but the long President's Day weekend plans include a trip to the St. James wine region to remedy this situation. I look forward to trying the 2013 vintages and talking to winemakers about their wine in barrels from the past wet 2015 growing season. Writing on a 55 degree morning and no interest in watching Djokovic beat Murray in the Australian Open Men's Final, perhaps today will also include a visit to a winery to celebrate Norton Month!

Sunday, January 17, 2016

How Birds Stay Warm in Winter

The National Wildlife Federation's newsletter this morning included a nice article on birds in winter and how these charming little animals stay warm. My feeders are full, the snow continues to fall, and I've refilled the bird bath with warm water twice this morning. From the desk of Melissa Mayntz, NWF:

"As temperatures drop across much of the country, we don heavy jackets, hats and gloves to keep warm. But what about backyard birds? Like humans, birds are warm-blooded, yet they have higher metabolic rates and, therefore, higher body temperatures—105 degrees F on average. When the mercury dips, it can be tough to maintain that heat. Survival depends on both physical and behavioral adaptations.

Birds’ feathers provide remarkable insulation, and many species grow an extra layer of down as part of a late-fall molt. Feathers are aligned to create tiny air pockets, and their outer layer is coated with waterproofing oil produced by a gland at the tail’s base and distributed when a bird preens.

The key is layers of trapped air contained between overlapping feathers that, when warmed by body heat, act as a cocoon of warmth,” says biologist Gavin Bieber of Wings Birding Tours Worldwide. “Think how a cushy down jacket with an outer waterproofing layer works for us.” As for featherless legs and feet, they’re covered with scales that minimize heat loss.

When fall food is plentiful, birds gorge to build up insulating fat, which also provides fuel to conserve body heat. Some species switch to higher-fat diets in winter. On sunny days, birds take advantage of solar radiation, turning their backs to the sun to allow their largest surface areas to soak up the rays. Under clouds, they may shiver, which burns calories but increases body temperature.

Roosting is another behavioral adaptation. “Small flocking birds such as bushtits, chickadees, nuthatches and titmice manage cold northern winters by roosting in groups in tight cavities,” Bieber says.

The most extreme survival strategy is torpor: a state of lower metabolism and body temperature that conserves energy. Hummingbirds regularly undergo torpor while swifts, doves and chickadees do so in extreme conditions. The common poorwill can enter a torpor so deep it effectively hibernates—the only bird species known to hibernate through winter. Compared with that, our coats and hats may seem like primitive adaptations indeed."

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Arrival of Winter, in earnest

The Missouri Wine and Grape Board designates January as Norton Month,which is a certainly appropriate designation with the temperatures dropping to normal winter weather lows, snow, winds out of the Northwest, and the short days that encourage thick and inky wines like a good Missouri Norton. While, yes, every day is Norton day in my house, the Wine and Grape Board just gave me an extra nudge to walk down to my basement for some random old Norton that I've been hoarding for several years. My basement houses more than the washer, dryer, and my entire Classics library; it holds all the Oregon pinot noir, all the fancy Nortons and nice, drink-soon Chambourcins, and all those other wines that I don't want housesitters to think are open game for consumption while I'm away. If I left fancy wine in the upstairs racks, they would be quickly consumed by petsitters or houseguests without my approval. It's happened before. So, January is Norton month and I plan to use that to my advantage as justification for increasing my Norton holdings.

The North winds came in quickly last week as I was checking out flood damage from the 8 to 12 inch rain events that occurred throughout the Ozarks. I saw a second round of frost flowers on the hike to see a scoured out streambank, a streambank with native spring vegetation like eel grass and coontail tangled in the canopy about 8 feet high. The crisp morning hike wasn't full of devastation in this natural setting. I will never proclaim that our natural systems are "resilient, dynamic and ever-changing" because they're not. We're dealing with highly disturbed ecosystems today, but to see the water levels in this karst landscape return to relatively regular pool after so much disturbance from an erratic flood event was somewhat reassuring. I have serious concerns about the caves at this site, including one with a river and a sump in it that connects to a spring, classic karst landscape. We ventured a few hundred feet into the cave and found a few bats but won't know the extent of the impact of gravel accretion, high water events and woody debris until we go in for longer than a short while as we did this week. Karst systems, while they may seem pretty resilient and sturdy because they're rock-based systems, are still sort of fragile: too much water flushing through the system can disrupt fragile flora and fauna including bats, invertebrates and herpetofauna in associated caves, springbranch biota, and water quality. The floodwaters have receded recently, leaving behind damaged structures well outside of the floodplain (so do they have flood insurance?), and we're only now assessing the damage to natural communities. If this is the new normal condition, events to be expected on an annual basis, I fear not only for the sustainability of natural communities but also for human habitation.

I had a nice hike this week through the uplands and even found a blooming spring wildflower, Isopyrum, but it's an anomaly, not the pattern. The days are definitely growing longer, and the window for burning native landscapes for the sustainability of natural communities is opening up, wide and clear. My Carnival decorations from New Orleans are out throughout my Craftsman bungalow, including a new set of purple/green/gold lights around the door. I overheard a server at my lunch restaurant today try to explain what an esteemed geologist group has proclaimed, the Anthropocene Epoch, a concept I think I wrote about three years ago, but now it's getting truck in the general public.

January is Norton month. Mardi Gras is really early this year so Carnival ramps up in January. The days are getting longer. The Australian Open begins in 8 days. Distractions!