Sunday, February 28, 2016

In Maintenance Mode

Thirty three years have passed since the prescribed fire program began in my favorite tract of Ozark woodlands. With spring warming occurring much earlier than it did in the 1980s, generally two weeks earlier than even ten years ago with longer periods of winter warm weather breaks, responsible fire management has been crammed into a very short window. The long history of prescribed (and wild) fire in these woodlands has resulted in a rich expression of the area's native flora, fauna and functioning ecosystems. Throughout the 3,900 acre area, fire management has shifted away from ecosystem restoration to maintenance of all facets of biodiversity supported by light intensity, low surface fires occurring on a rotation ranging from three to ten (or even more) years. But to get to that point, early restoration efforts to restore the flashy fuels (grasses, forbs, sedges) which carry light fires faster than thick leaf litter, fire occurred much more frequently. But that was over 20 years ago.

I spent much of last week visiting burn units that were treated with fire in late 2015. There are fire practitioners in the field today who may not understand the function of fire on a landscape for restoration or the idea of achieving a desired condition for landscapes shaped by emulating natural disturbance factors. In some instances, I do not feel confident that a desired condition has even been defined. Because of this, and the lack of understanding of fire intensity in damaged systems, the lack of understanding of ecologically based decisions pertaining to fire behavior, and the misunderstanding of the fragility of our millions of acres of out-of-historic-context woodlands in Missouri, fire application has resulted in utter destruction of potentially restorable ecosystems. But not here.

Thankfully, thirty three years ago when the fire program began in these woodlands, practitioners carefully applied fire with the understanding that the primary driver in early restoration is to achieve light to the woodland floor to encourage the restoration of the herbaceous understory, the flashy fuels that would continue to dictate future fire intensity and frequency. They didn't achieve this restoration by running fire under poorly designed burn units across the area in late April when the herbaceous vegetation was far advanced. They didn't cook the soil but achieved desired condition with patience, with an understanding of topography, fire prescription, and fire effects. So now we're in maintenance mode. Fire isn't necessary every three years to stimulate the herbaceous layer; these woodlands and glades had not seen fire for seven years before the event in late November, but it served its purpose: burned up cedars, removed leaf litter and thatch, but didn't burn every square inch to mineral soil (which can be devastating for a number of reasons including leaving bare soil open to erosion all winter). By understanding topographical design of burn units, of using topography to help dictate the fire regime, there will be areas unburned, some areas burning hotter than others, and so forth. Responsible fire in Missouri is becoming rare, likely due to the lack of trained ecologically sound professionals implementing this ancient, irreplaceable disturbance regime.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Silent Spring Again

I conducted my first breeding bird survey in the Ozarks in spring, 2004. I remember being a bit disappointed while working in this incredibly rich ecosystem that there weren't a lot of prairie warbler nests, that the indigo bunting nest success was down rather significantly from a survey conducted in 1998, and that the generalist species were on the increase by density, not numbers, while the specialists-- the prairie warblers, field sparrows, blue-gray gnatcatchers and others-- were present but not in such an abundance as recorded in a 1995-1998 survey of the same area. Maybe I caught a bad year, maybe it was too dry that spring, maybe it was all the development occurring at the border of the study site. I was still pretty excited to see prairie warblers and field sparrows and yellow-breasted chats in woodlands, yes, birds not often associated with woodland systems but definitely present in these burned woodlands that were full of long-lived perennial forbs and a regenerating grassland-shrubland component, an aspect that researchers call "structure," not a measure of biodiversity but a component of worth when considering bird use of natural areas.

Nevertheless, numbers of individuals and successful nests were down in 2004 and again lower when I revisited the same sites in 2010. There wasn't an exponential drop in the population of these target species, but the numbers of individual occurrences didn't even resemble the population numbers from the mid-1990s. I've sent my data through the same analysis programs and have had a few presentations on the importance of regularly occurring prescribed fire and largescale intact native ecosystems to bird populations, so forth, but the numbers of birds and successful nests I've encountered are considerably lower than the exact same surveys conducted in the 1990s. But my work is just anecdotal, nothing published, only in posters and presentations. As such, I've just sort of written off the anomalous low numbers to increased fragmentation, localized drought, a "bad year" for birds or even my own human error in sampling. Maybe it's due to other factors including increased urbanization, conversion of wintering grounds to cattle grazing, increased agriculture, population explosion, lack of predators and natural processes, or the phenology of bloom times of native flora which I've written about multiple times in the past 6 years. But this is all "anecdotal and conjecture." I know from experience, data collection and from examining historic data and replicating the sampling procedure that the bird populations are declining in this high quality tract of woodlands in the western Ozarks.

In recent years I have cancelled my subscriptions to certain organizations whose boards or other leadership have tried to whitewash the absolutely devastating impacts of climate change, of recent environmental disasters like the 2010 oil spill, of the elephant in the room--population explosion, of urbanization and industrial takeover of the world's last remaining wild places including the destruction of native prairie by the cattle industry. Out of the shakeout, I remain a loyal member of my local Audubon chapter, a small group of folks who take our chapter's mission very seriously--to preserve and protect the earth's biological diversity.

I have enjoyed the opportunity to line up speakers for our monthly meetings. The February speaker, in particular, I was excited to hear. I gave him a topic: Climate Change and Bird Populations in Missouri. While I was expecting to hear about range changes, how painted buntings and black vultures are moving northward, red-shouldered hawks are increasing during winter months, and other interesting facts, I was thrilled to listen to a presentation about the direct impacts of climate change. The speaker, an Emeritus professor at the University of Missouri with literally hundreds of publications about bird populations under his belt, produced a frightful doomsday scenario regarding his 40 years of migratory bird research and the impacts of climate change. I don't like whitewashing, and I don't like the "finding the positive" in environmental disasters and ecological collapse which I've seen in publications and throughout the mainstream media, so I sat riveted by this revered professor. Unlike my own "anecdotal evidence" of changes in bird populations which doesn't hold water in the research world, he came to the meeting with direct evidence and data showing the impacts of climate change on migratory songbirds, the birds that winter in South and Central America and spend their breeding seasons in Missouri. Black and white warblers, prairie warblers, wood thrush, and the rest of the migrants, this professor has collected data for forty years using mistnets and banding procedures in the exact locations in Puerto Rico to track population dynamics. The news is not good. Migratory songbird populations are tanking, and rather precipitously.

How do you pin down climate change as a cause? With so many folks arguing that 'climate' is not 'weather,' the evidence is clear that the climate is changing, the constants are changing, weather events are becoming more severe, the El Nino is more severe, the droughts are more severe and all of these factors together are impacting bird populations. Several years ago I wrote a post about how the natural events celebrated in an agency's beautifully produced calendar are now occurring two weeks earlier: Spring peepers start calling in January, morels are out earlier, greenup of sedges is occurring earlier. While some citizens welcome the earlier spring and warmer weather, the impacts to prescribed fire programs are significant; we're not seeing ideal burn weather in mid-February. It's too green, too windy, too dry, the casualties on wildlife and flora would be too great even in mid-February, a season which was once completely dormant. The impacts of warming climate on native flora phenology are huge. Earlier bloom cycles, which are well documented, mean that the invertebrate life loyal to certain plants may miss the critical feeding times. By the time migratory songbirds arrive in Missouri and set up breeding territories, if those territories are even available with the threat of urbanization and exotic species, the caterpillars necessary for brood rearing may have already morphed into moths and butterflies. Without a food source directly linked to the bloom cycles of native flora, fledgling success tanks.

But phenology isn't the only problem. With the slight increase in temperature, predators become active earlier now. Researchers using geolocators have discovered their tracking devices in the stomachs of snakes earlier than in years past. With warmer days occurring earlier, snakes are more active and predatory on bird nests. Add to the mix the drought, the lack of warm spring rains that once gave rise to a suite of plants and animals thriving across a landscape. The flashy, ten inch rain events do nothing for wildlife. All of that rain ends up in runoff. Weather patterns have changed and not in the course of hundreds of years. Weather patterns have changed even in the short time that I've lived in Missouri. That's shocking.

Sadly, the revered professor who spoke to my Audubon chapter ended his presentation with a list of things that we can do to help the situation. Among them, educate the public that climate change is actually occurring and not a fictional liberal agenda item. Second on his list, knowing that climate change reform won't happen when millions of tons of carbon are being spewed from the tailpipes of automobiles daily and that won't change unless there is legislation that even applies to China and India whose populations grow exponentially on a daily basis, is that he should retire and enjoy retirement. I've seen the march of ecological doom barreling my way, and have tried to take the dictum of "float the rivers while they're still flowing and not full of cattle, and drink wine." Sadly, in 20 years, if I'm still around I'll be drinking Norton from a straw through my oxygen mask. Ecological doom through climate change is not science fiction. It's happening now.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Great Backyard Bird Count 2016

For many years, birders across the country have come to associate President's Day weekend with a global birding event. The Great Backyard Bird Count began yesterday, and the checklists in Missouri are starting to trickle in. The interactive map showing checklists for distinct areas allows visitors to the website to search by county. The Missouri checklists can be found here, and from there one can search for specific counties.

While the count is labeled a "backyard" event, birding isn't restricted to a personal residence; "backyard" can refer to any place with birds, be it a state park, a national forest, a trail, and so forth. With three full feeders, warm water in the birdbath, fresh suet, and a large wooded backyard, I'm planning to participate in the bird count. I've already seen four species of woodpeckers and many other typical Missouri winter birds. The male cardinals perch on the redbud shrubs waiting for their turn at the hopper feeder, waiting patiently for the chickadees to quickly grab their tiny morsel and take it off to the cedar for munching.

Have fun exploring the data and participating in this fun weekend event!