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

Secluded

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.