Saturday, August 12, 2017

In the St. Francois Mountains

On May 8, 2009, in the middle of the day, straight line winds in excess of 100mph ripped through the Ozark Highlands and toppled the largely wooded canopy across approximately 150 miles. The wind event, labeled as a derecho (pronounced both in the proper Spanish pronunciation and the Americanized version), was predicted by Drew and the other fine folks at Springfield NOAA. This storm that brought us a bow echo wind event resulted in not only flattened trees across thousands of acres, but damaged buildings, closed roads and caused power outages for at least a week if not more.

While many private and public landowners began salvage logging all of the red oak, black oak and scattered white oak that had fallen during the storm, some landowners left the downed trees to let nature take its course, beetle food, natural decomposition and all. Deep in the heart of the St. Francois Mountains this one area that did not see heavy equipment rip up the soil and damage the understory has served as a lesson in recovery through the years. Looking at the original General Land Office survey records, one can read about the abundance of hazelnut shrubs in the midstory and a scattered post oak and shortleaf pine overstory that existed before intensive settlement of the area began in the mid-1800s. Visiting the areas that did not see the wind event, one may be hard pressed to find hazelnut and pine, and, after many years of open range grazing and fire suppression, there is an explosion of a red oak-black oak component that does not coincide with the historic character. But visit the regenerating woodlands that have now been managed with infrequent fire, witnessed no salvage logging, and allowed to regenerate naturally, and one will find a canopy and midstory composition much in line with the historic survey records.

And so, in summer 2017, the pines are skyrocketing, the post oak-white oak shrubs are maturing into trees, and looking out across the landscape, from a long view at least, it's difficult to discern that 90% of the canopy had been uprooted by that windstorm. On the ground, hiking the maintained Ozark Trail, the shrub layer is dense and thick and in need of a prescribed fire to encourage the canopy trees and to knock back some of the dense thickets of black gum, drought stressed last week and already turning red.

The hazelnut shrubs are producing a bumper crop of nuts which must be absolutely great for the black bear population down there. The brush is so thick and dense, but the canopy trees that were felled by the windstorm are melting thanks to successive fires and sheer time. Shrubland birds thrive here, with a cacophony of towhees and yellow-breasted chats surrounding us as we duct taped off the thousands of seed ticks littering our trouser legs. The area spared from salvage logging is a din of bird life, insect life, good forb diversity and blooming goldenrods and blazing stars. Resiliency in our highest quality areas is possible if we don't mess with them too much.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Sampling during Seed Tick Season

I think I need to write to the Duct Tape company and explain to them how grateful I am for their product. Thanks to Duct Tape, I can wrap my ankles and throw a slab of tape onto my thigh so that when I hit seed ticks, I can immediately capture them onto the tape, folding them into death. I am generally a compassionate person, really I am, but when the creature bound for my ankles, thighs, waist, entire body is a seed tick, I will gladly remove them from my trousers with Duct Tape. I can't live without Duct Tape during seed tick season. With one swat of duct tape to the trousers, one can capture hundreds of seed ticks, all vectors for disease.

But vegetation sampling season is well underway, coinciding with seed tick season. On a routine basis, I bust through the tall warm season grasses and perennial forbs to track species richness in burn units, but I check my trousers every couple of steps for masses of seed ticks. Duct tape is vital, along with horrible chemicals that are undoubtedly increasing my chances of cancer just by spraying them onto my clothes. But when the ticks hit my clothes that have been treated with this horrible carcinogen, they die rather than scatter all over me. Tick disease or clothes soaked in known carcinogens? It's kind of a battle, one that all of us working in the field deal with on a daily basis. Knowing that the deer population in my sampling site was out of control, super high numbers of deer, I opted for soaking my trousers in the carcinogen and I remained tick-free. Hopefully anyone else who uses this toxic chemical will recognize that it is not meant for human contact, that clothes must be treated and dried for two hours before wearing. Safe chemical? Hell no. This is toxic as toxic gets.

But sampling must occur, and without late July sampling events, one will miss out on seeing Hexalectris spicata, an orchid that shows up in early restoration on a glade after cedar removal. Stop hiking during July and you'll miss seeing all the invertebrates, the blooming Silphium and Vernonia, the orchids and all of the bees, butterflies and other blooming plants. Seed ticks are horrible, yes, and mature ticks can be deadly, yes, so make sure you wear long trousers, tape your ankles with Duct Tape, spray the dickens of horrible chemical onto your clothes, but not while you're wearing them. Don't wear shorts and flip flops. Seed tick season is definitely here and it's a bad one, one with no previous winter to speak of to kill off adult ticks. I still can't figure out if seed ticks are vectors for disease, I see alternating articles on the topic. I do know that they itch horribly and leave red welts behind their bite. To enjoy the Ozarks during seed tick season, one must be prepared to manage them. One stray blade of grass along a trail and you'll be hit with a slug of ticks. Carry Duct Tape. Wear Duct Tape. But the natural world is blooming with such spectacular flowers that it would be a shame to wait until the first frost to go for a hike.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

In the Throes of Summer

When I see the open air pitched tents in a parking lot, it's my signal to pull over to see what the farmers in the area are offering that day. Farmer's markets and impromptu truck stands have popped up all over the state in recent years. And now, in late July, they're all awash in beautiful tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, and green beans. Summer produce season is definitely one of my favorite times of the year: there's a "no cooking" rule in my house from the first 95 degree day until the beginning of fall's cooler temperatures. I've been gorging on peaches and blackberries and caprese salads--huge slabs of slicer tomatoes, basil from my garden, mozzarella cheese and balsamic vinegar. Because my yard is too shady to grow anything other than a few herbs and Red Russian kale, I always carry some cash to stop in on local growers.

With all the richness of flowering plants in our natural communities, with the great bounty of fantastic produce also comes a flush of growth of exotic species and the cone of death that comes with treatment. My growing season months aren't always spent traipsing through nice woodlands and glades collecting data. They also include a bit of time spraying horrible chemicals and cutting and stump treating exotic species. It's an awful part of summer that requires long sleeves, a respirator and the sad fate of the flora surrounding exotic species. I try to be surgical, not using the spray setting on a backpack sprayer and often using the glove treatment when, for example, there are a handful of sprigs of sericea surrounded by scurfy pea and other nice natives. But it's difficult and often, despite explicit instruction, there will be practitioners who would rather be done with the job with an empty sprayer so broadcast more chemical than is necessary and without as much regard to the plants we want to preserve. Herbicide application is a very scary aspect of community management; one wrong chemical, one trigger-happy practitioner and an entire area can be killed, leaving bare ground to be colonized by more weeds. It's actually quite scary, sending crews out with sprayers. Sweet clover? I pull it. Johnson grass? Cut and stump treat. Multiflora rose and bush honeysuckle? Cut and stump treat. Yes, it's more time consuming, but it helps to keep the collateral damage down and it's a great way to spend October and November while the leaves are still green and sticking out like a sore thumb.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

A Little off the Beaten Path: Red Moose Vineyards

A few nights ago, while in my hotel room listening to the cicada and katydid chorus through my screen window, I flipped through the hotel's complimentary magazine that highlights local businesses. Naturally, if I see the words "vineyard" or "winery," I will investigate the advertisement and take note. New wineries are opening annually in Missouri, and this one, Red Moose Vineyards, located about 30 miles outside of Salem, has been around for a few years now and operating under my winery-seeking radar. Well, under the radar until now.

Follow the curvy road of Hwy. 19, the same road that takes one to Akers Ferry Canoe Rental and into the heart of the Current River Hills, then peel off onto VV- not VV in Dent County but Crawford County. On the right, just a few miles down VV and on a short gravel driveway, sits a lovely new metal building with log cabin accents and large two story deck complete with brightly colored umbrellas over the tables to provide shade. The deck overlooks the vineyard which was planted in 2006 with Norton, Chambourcin and other varietals that make up my favorite Missouri wines. Inside the log cabin accents with a contemporary feel is a modern tasting room with high ceilings and huge windows that allow for ideal natural light. Red Moose Vineyards was not named after the animal, but the partners- the winemaker's nickname Red, and Moose is Red's brother and both he and his wife (their sister-in-law) collaborate in the business. Moose's real name is Mark and their sister-in-law's name is Shirley, but she goes by the nickname Zimm. This business is a true family venture.

The rustic -yet modern- feel of the winery includes a mounted moose head above the door and a silhouette red moose as the logo. So, even though the winery was not named after the animal, it would have been strange to not have a red moose as the logo. I recall a winery in North Missouri named after the owner's son, but the entire winery was outfitted in "I Love Lucy" paraphernalia (which made me check the record to find out if Lucille Ball was a Missourian. She was not).

Red Moose Vineyards offers light lunch options such as pizza and cheese trays, winery food always welcome to winery guests (especially my trusty driver). More importantly for me at a Missouri winery is the wide variety of supple, beautifully made dry red wines. The Red Moose 2012 Norton is a classic, aged 14 months in white oak barrels procured from McGinnis Wood Products in nearby Cuba, Missouri. The 2015 Chambourcin is fantastic, and while it's a drink-now wine, it could also be set aside for a few years to see how it develops. The precious barista that day was the winemaker's wife and partner who had time to tell me about the winery's history: They moved here from Edwardsville, Illinois where she worked for the local fire department. Her husband was a home winemaker in the beginning. On the tasting bar was a photo of the label of Fruition, a red blend that they sell, with part of the proceeds of the sales of this wine earmarked for a local Salem Plateau- area fire department. Each month the sales of this wine, Wine with a Cause, goes to a local charity of Red Moose Vineyard's choice. Of course I bought this one for my rack, knowing that part of my purchase that day was going to the local volunteer fire department.

As is the case with most Missouri wineries, the biggest sales here come from the sweeter offerings. I tasted the semi-sweet wines, which were lovely but probably too dry for my one friend who drinks sweet wines. They excel at dry vintages, and are among the friendliest bunch of folks I've met in a long time. This little winery off Hwy. 19 has something to offer everyone, including beer drinkers who can enjoy Rolla/St. James Public House's fine craft beer. I'm thrilled Red Moose Vineyard is successful, and so happy to have met the winemaker who helped me with my yeast choices for my first batch of Norton. What a great place to spend an afternoon overlooking incredible vines and the welcome thunderstorms rolling in.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

A New Landscape Paradigm

In the past ten years that I have lived in my yellow Craftsman bungalow, I have dealt with the local weed inspectors regarding my native, wild yard. I have a lot of asters, goldenrods, wild geraniums, spiderwort, cup plant and other native species; seeing these rangy plants when they're not in full glorious bloom seems to ruffle feathers in the code violations offices. Fair enough, I understand height restrictions for plants that are not typical garden variety species. I certainly understand where the weed inspectors are coming from, a background of lawns being tidy and nice, manicured, which my yard is not. I worked in horticulture in a past career, so certainly recognize the concept of well-manicured yards to keep snakes and rats at bay. I also recognize that native plant gardening doesn't result in pest problems.

When I first moved into this house as a renter, I took note of the native flora that was persisting through the frequent plantings of turfgrass. In this perched wetland classified as an upland flatwoods, we had old growth chinquapin oak, pin oaks with buttressing bases, lots of smartweeds, joe pye weed, spiderwort, and all of these species came in on their own, so I was in no position to eradicate them in favor of a turfgrass lawn. I've never owned a lawn mower and never wanted to invest in one. We've had our battles with the weed inspector but it's mostly because the lot next to mine is abandoned and has chest-high fescue and Queen Anne's lace. I actively work to make my yard less weedy and more forb-y. The hostas that the previous landowner planted never do very well; they flower for a few days and then shrivel in the crappy soils inherent in this property. The purple coneflowers do quite well, along with black-eyed Susans which bloom profusely throughout June and August. But I still have the tall asters that won't flower until early September. And then there's my Helianthus hirsutus which doesn't really flower until late September.

Tuesday afternoon I will have a cadre of "backyard habitat specialists" on my property for an assessment. I have gone through the paperwork for a National Wildlife Backyard Habitat certification, and the local version of that which asks even further questions about rain barrels and compost piles, which, of course I have. I have shared photos of other native vegetation yards in the neighborhood to the office that will be coming out to my yard, all beautiful photos of Ratibida and coneflowers, charismatic sedges, nice and organized yards. I've worked hard this week to make my yard look organized, cutting back seedheads of sedges knowing that the weed ordinance hits yards with "weeds" 1 ft. tall, which my Carex annectans is. Cut it. I did. I've trimmed back my gooseberry shrubs, my wild hydrangeas, my elderberry, all very tidy and manicured now. I do hope I pass inspection and the muster that will allow me to weigh in on native plantings. Fingers crossed.

Update!Met with the City Conservationist today and my yard ranked Platinum because there is no trace of bush honeysuckle, lawn grass, wintercreeper and other weeds. I scored well with my rain barrel, bird baths, bird houses, bird feeders, bee house, brushpile, native fruit producing flora (she had some of my gooseberries which the catbirds left behind), so I get a sign in the yard as a native habitat landscape! Now I will have the city sign, my National Wildlife Federation sign, and my Bernie sign. She told me I needed to keep up the Bernie sign, which has been up since early 2016. It's not coming down.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Oh Deer, We Have a Serious Problem

Visiting the Cross Timbers country, where the Ozarks meet the prairies, is usually full of fun botanical discoveries--Perideridia americana, Malvaviscus hispidus, fun stuff like that, all surrounded by stunted post oak trees that average 400 years in age. This traditionally open landscape was the site of early ecosystem restoration projects spearheaded by a colleague, followed up by botanical surveys which indicated super rich woodlands, old growth post oaks, a grass-forb mix that appeared after thinning and prescribed fire were implemented. I love camping here with all of the Summer Tanagers, the Orchard Orioles, the Red-headed Woodpeckers that all thrive in this great environment.

But when I looked at the sampling data from 1987 and compared it to my own transect data along the same plots I collected in 2011, it was not even recognizable. First I thought I was in the wrong area, but I quickly realized that the entire site had been so severely degraded by deer overbrowsing that I asked for funding to install deer exclosures just to make sure I wasn't crazy. 16 ft. cattle panels, held together with baling wire, requiring climbing into them to sample the vegetation. So, I set up deer exclosures in 2011. I have sampled outside the deer exclosure and inside the deer exclosure using valid methodology established by the outfit I work for every year after a prescribed fire. The first few years I saw a few differences, more flowering stems inside the exclosure, more development of redbuds, white oaks and other ice cream plants for deer. I have collected data since 2011 and the data from 2017, collected last week, tells a story. A horrible story.

Imagine a landscape that was on par with the best remaining quality landscapes in the Niangua Basin, super rich with edge-of-range species, a lot of Camassia angusta, Brickellia, all kinds of cool plants that pollinating insects depend on, and then add an atrociously high number of white-tailed deer, some so tame and tick-infested that they come up to campers looking for food. Biodiversity disappears. I have witnessed this trend around St. Louis, and thankfully we have long-standing deer exclosures set up there, too, to measure deer impacts to vegetation. Unfortunately, someone in my shoes complaining about deer overpopulation and the degradation of biodiversity at the hands of deer doesn't stand a chance in the political realm. So I collect data. I write testimony that deer are impacting biodiversity.

When the woodlands of the Cross Timbers country were once a rich system with a suite of warm season grasses and perennial forbs- many of them restricted in their range- when that landscape is reduced to a monoculture of inland sea oats, genus Uniola, with no forb diversity, there's a problem. There's especially a problem when in those deer exclosures I set up in 2011 possess more species richness than anywhere else in the entire 800 acre tract, there's a problem. Indeed, deer cause a lot of collateral damage to crops, to automobiles, but no one is measuring the impacts of deer on biodiversity except a few select folks. When I saw a doe in my yard recently I recoiled and yelled and screamed and almost pulled out my Daisy slingshot. My partner laughed, saying that I trash talk deer so much that now they're coming after my yard. It's not funny. Deer are voracious feeders and will denude a landscape of quality vegetation, and when that happens, the whole trophic cascade effect occurs. Without the flowering plants you don't see pollinators. Without pollinators and other insects you don't see birds. Without birds you don't see seed dispersal, and so forth. Deer are the hooved locusts of biodiversity. Managing this scourge from the east, from the abysmal landscapes of Biltmore Estates, no plants but trees (not regenerating) and ferns, will be our future unless we take immediate action to control these out of control deer populations. Without the long standing predator-prey relationships, deer will continue to spiral out of control. And biodiversity loses every time.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

June is Concord Month!

As any loyal reader of my blog knows, I do not drink sweet wine. I opt for Norton, Chambourcin, cheap Cabernet for my house wine. I do collect Oregon pinot noir and Missouri Nortons and will open one on special occasions, including one occasion which involved the coming of my house wrens to my wren box. These are special occasions. When the katydids start calling I'll open another one. I have great hopes of making my own wine, not for apocalypse planning but for my own edification. So I had to start somewhere. Missouri seems like a great place for making wine.

And so, last July I placed an order for Norton juice from a St. James area vineyard that cannot produce wine. They grow grapes and can sell juice, but can't make wine. When I finally arrived in mid-September, they only had Concord juice, sold as juice, frozen to kill off the wild yeast. I reconfigured my recipe with champagne yeast to make Concord wine, preferably a dry wine that didn't taste like all the commercial Concords that are palatable to college-aged girls and sweet wine lovers.

A family friend gave me two glass carboys, my partner gave me the fermenters and airlocks, along with a great book on making wine. Special thanks to professional winemakers who gave me more advice than I even understood, I made my first batch of wine: Concord, with regular wine yeast and champagne yeast as a finish. The wine turned out vaguely effervescent, but flavorful. I have given it away to friends who drink sweet wine and have given tastes to friends who support my plan to make supple, dry wines out of Missouri-grown grapes. But June is designated as Concord Month by the Missouri Wine and Grape Board, so I celebrate my first venture into making wine. I have yet to actually drink anything more than a taste of the wine I made. I plan to improve my skills with better juice secured from a winery in Osage County. In the meantime, visit Missouri wineries this summer! Concord is a good place to start. Usually folks will drink sweet wine and then matriculate to dry wines. Concord is traditionally so damned sweet but it's a good gateway wine for anyone wanting to go from beer or liquor to wine.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Three Days on the Current River

I set out early on Monday for a three day birding event in the Current River country. I hadn't visited the area since the last big flood, the one that sent buildings downstream, ripped roofs off of float outfitters and shut down the river to recreation for almost an entire month. The streambanks have been shredded. Volunteers and hired hands spent a month clearing downed logs to make the river passable for floaters by cutting up the snags into firewood and sending them downstream. But the streambanks look like a tornado went through them.

Streambank natural communities are accustomed to, and in fact dependent on disturbance such as from intermittent flooding. But to what degree of disturbance? This megaflood ripped mature trees and sections of bottomland woodlands out of the way which has now widened the river in some places, filling the river with sediment and more gravel, making it look like the sections of river where jet boats cause significant sheeting and degradation of the streambank. The flooding sent all of the fish hatchery trout downstream on the Current, little guys, voracious feeders of native fauna. Before Welch Spring I noted large patches of bright green filamentous algae, a sign of pollution from the watershed. All the fertilizer from pastures, manure and flooded bathrooms and latrines sending high nutrient loads downstream. I have seen the same on parts of the Jack's Fork River from horse manure, areas that were cordoned off from full body contact with the water, but that was in a stagnant July.

Cliff faces must be the most sturdy of our natural communities associated with Ozark streams. The Southern Maidenhair Fern persists despite the roaring river waters. Gravel bars have been reshaped, the river is widening and sediment sloughing off. Gravel accretion occurring rapidly. Unfortunately, I doubt this can be classified as a once-in-100-years flood event.

I woke every morning at 5:30 to the sounds of cerulean warblers, almost too many to count, and yellow throated warblers, Louisiana waterthrush with their dulcet call, even one blue-winged warbler on a shrubby streambank. Maybe it's the scale of all of that protected land that allows for so many breeding birds, signs of nests and visions of orioles taking out the fecal sacs from their nests. Despite the sad state of shredded streambanks, birding in the Current River country is certainly rewarding.

Monday, May 29, 2017

A Woodland in Maintenance Mode

On March 23, 1983, this 61 acre woodland was set on fire for the first time in many years. It was an easy burn technically, just as it was in November 2016: one primary hill surrounded by steep draws and a glade on the northeast corner. This area has seen regularly occurring fire since 1983, often incorporated as part of a larger unit, sometimes on its own, but regular fire courses through it like clockwork. When my Audubon chapter Field Trip Coordinator asked if I would lead a fieldtrip in May, of course I suggested taking the long drive to this beautiful area.

Stepping out of the cars on a cloudy late May morning, a day with a forecast of torrential rain, we heard the prairie warblers as clearly as a trilling bell. Our birding hike through this burn unit turned into a botany class with so many rich woodland and glade plants in full flower that it was hard for some in our group to fathom that all of it is naturally occurring. I recall several fieldtrips where I have been asked about seed mixes, how much seed does it take to produce an area like this. Zero, none, no seeds have been added to this lovely woodland complex.

Quite different story from where I spent the bulk of my week. I attended a great workshop in this completely manufactured landscape. Imagine if you will a place unlike any natural setting where plants only found in backwater sloughs in North Missouri are growing next to plants that are only found in Ozark fens. Or rare plants known from two locations in Missouri growing in a garden setting. This artificial setting was disturbing at best from a natural community ecologist's position where plant conservation is tied to natural community protection. But then there's a side to plant conservation where growing in a garden setting is just as good or better than the natural community protection.

It's a political divide between plant conservation and ecosystem protection. I frankly think it's.....something.....to collect seeds from highly conservative plants, the ones with C values of 7-10 and then grow them in a garden to collect an Element of Occurrence record from them. While I would hate to see, for example, Solidago gattengeri to go extinct, I would much prefer to know that the plant's conservatism resulted in the conservation of degraded though restorable glades rather than the efforts of garden ladies in St. Louis who had success with their rich soils. It begs the question, one which made me leave the native plant society many years ago--if the plants disappear, we can just replant them from seeds, so the actions of our misinformed management will go unchallenged, we can just plant the seeds of the plants you want to see. A zoo setting. A botanical garden rather than a high quality ecosystem. To hell with proper ecosystem management if you can just play Johnny Appleseed on the landscape.

Move to Friday night at my grocery store where I was stocking up on wine and Greek yogurt for the weekend and found growing quite happily in their bioswale (installed because they just put in a gas station where I get great fuel points) a lovely specimen of Carex muskingumensis, known from remnant high quality sites in North Missouri. And now, thanks to the plant trade, known from the damned parking lot at my Gerbes store. And it's doing great. Natural community conservation and management is a lot harder than gardening. I'm actually glad to hear that propagating New Jersey tea is difficult. It should be. This high C value plant should only be seen in high quality areas like the one we visited this weekend. And it was everywhere there. What happens when the native plants propagated from genetics of who knows where in the Ozarks translocate to an equally high quality native landscape? And it takes off? To hell with the scientific value of native genetics.
Native plant gardening is fine in areas surrounded by destroyed native habitat, but please don't bring in "native plants" near intact systems. It's all very disruptive and disturbing at the same time. So which of my photos are from native plant gardens? None of them, they're all from a high quality ecosystem, an irreplaceable ecosystem that cannot be "replanted" once it's gone.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Turtles Crossing, Slow Down

I remember exactly where I was on Rt. BB outside of Montreal when I pulled over to the shoulder to move my first box turtle from the road. I was on my way to open the gates as part of my job description. I needed to be on Hwy D by 6:45am to open gates, and there I was at 6:30 pulling over on the road to move not one but two box turtles who were booking their way across the road. At the crest of the hill, I pulled my Honda Civic over to the tiny shoulder so I could get out and hike the road to move the turtles. I really didn't know how to operate my new-to-me 1995 stick shift Honda Civic. I certainly didn't know what to do when I encountered a hill in Arkansas and asked a stranger to drive my car to the top of the hill so I could continue on my journey. I bought that car without knowing how to drive it from a mechanic in Westwego, Louisiana who said that he didn't rag out that clutch too bad, dawg. Great car. It has 325K miles on it at this time.

So I pulled over to the small shoulder and at the time I didn't know that when a stick shift car is on a hill, one needs to put it in a certain gear with the emergency brake. No, I had barely learned how to drive the damned thing before I migrated to Missouri. I thought I was going to need a heat lamp for the engine, with no clue about the severity of the winters here. My supervisor laughed when I asked about that. So, when I saw the turtles I pulled over to the shoulder and just turned off the car so I could walk back down the road to move them. I moved the turtles to a safe place, and when I turned around, my car was moving down the slope and ended up in a ditch. Shit. No cell phone service, I didn't know a soul in Missouri besides my employer, I was already late opening the gates. Eventually a truck came by and saw me in my stupid uniform standing next to my 1995 Honda Civic that was pretty well entrenched into the ditch. As most kind Ozarkers will do, the guy in the truck asked if I needed help. After a big description about how I was moving turtles and my car migrated downslope he sort of laughed, and hitched a rope to some mechanism on my car that allowed it to be towed back out to BB. He had to be on his way and I asked if I could pay him or send him a check or something, but he laughed and said "just keep on saving those turtles." He laughed heartily, so I think he was pulling my proverbial string. Thank heavens for men with trucks and rope in the Ozarks. Since that time in 2003 I have been saved twice more by men in trucks. They never take my money, but I have been able to pay at least one in wild blackberries.

So, after a good rain in the spring the box turtles start crossing the roads. I don't think they're migrating, I think they're looking for the warmth of the road but they always seem so persistent in their direction. It's definitely the worst part of spring, driving Ozark roads and seeing box turtles trying to cross--the good people slow down and avoid them, or pull over to move them. The black-hearted people go out of their way and onto the shoulder to run over them. When you see a dead turtle on a shoulder, that's not just a regular highway death, that's someone who went off the road to kill a turtle. There's a special place in hell for people who do that. Anyway, it's heartbreaking to see so many turtles on the road.

Because they don't move very quickly, turtles are easy to avoid hitting if the driver is paying attention. We avoided 6 turtles today on a short drive from Columbia to Camdenton. I've talked to the head herpetologist in the state and, to date, there is no one measuring the impacts of road mortality on population dynamics in Missouri. I've seen hideous reports from Florida of road mortality on herpetofauna that resulted in the county making more friendly roadways and such. Our box turtles are so ubiquitous that initiating any kind of legislation to protect them is pie in the sky. I love encountering Eastern box turtles and while I recognize that road mortality must be playing a huge role in their sustainability, I like to think that when they exist in natural areas they are well protected and can perform their entire life cycle in the Ozarks.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

May 10: Migratory Bird Day

When I woke up last week at 5:45am to the calls of a white-eyed vireo and a Tennessee warbler amidst the din of house wren chatter, I knew that my wintering white-throated sparrows had probably moved on overnight. Today is the big day for my local Audubon chapter where we fan out across the county to count birds. May 10th was officially Migratory Bird Day, so today is the official Big Day for listers. Aside from beefing up individual eBird lists, my chapter continues to collect data in designated circles just as we have for 50 years, data kept separately from eBird for our own edification.

This week, reports from the World Bird Sanctuary came in that the thrushes were thick in their migration mist nets. That white eye ring and lilting call of the Swainson's thrush are unmistakeable; I saw at least twenty of them on hikes Tuesday and Wednesday. Just as I was alerting my Audubon chapter that I had a new visitor in my yard, a dapper white-crowned sparrow, a fellow chapter member who lives on the block reported four of them in his yard. And then I saw a deceased one on my walk around the block with my schnauzer.

The weather radar has picked up the traveling birds on their nighttime northward migration; huge fields of disturbance show up all over Missouri and especially along the Mississippi River flyway. With the epic travels come also the big devastation of bird deaths due to collisions with buildings. Thousands of birds die during migration because of lighted buildings. Early versions of cell towers with certain kinds of lighting colors and patterns with guy wires also kill birds during migration. Proper siting and lighting on cell towers and turning off lights in high rise buildings can greatly diminish bird mortality, research shows.

The morning chorus usually begins with an American robin at 4:30 and then the yard erupts into hundreds of bird calls by sunrise. With the windows open I can detect the stranger birds, the ones who only stick around for a fleeting period of time. I have the welcome mat open to all of them, the ones passing through or staying a while during breeding season: clean water in the bird bath, seed and suet feeders still up, three hummingbird feeders, a canopied yard full of native flora and plenty of insect life, a brushpile and shrubby areas that the Northern cardinals have already set up a nest in, and nest boxes for the chickadees and house wrens. I do love seeing the annual visit of common yellowthroats in my urban backyard. Spring migration is well underway, a little later than in past years, but in full swing this month.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Catastrophic: The Ozarks will not be the same.

It was roughly a year ago that I tracked down a climate change scientist and asked him to write an article for a newsletter I edit about his recent research in the change in rainfall patterns in the Ozarks. His elucidating study from Missouri State University showed that through time, rainfall events in the Big Barren Creek in the Current River watershed were increasing in intensity; higher rainfall amounts in a shorter duration are becoming the norm. The increased carbon amounts in the atmosphere are changing weather patterns. For most people with a basic understanding of science and the fact that we cannot possibly imagine that pumping as much carbon into the atmosphere from our coal-fired plants and tailpipes wouldn't have an impact on the atmosphere, this is not news. Nevertheless, climatologists have data.

The floodwaters are beginning to recede so we can finally grasp the damage caused by this catastrophe. I know many buildings have been washed downstream leaving only foundations and slabs. Rivers will not be ready for floaters by Memorial Day, and who knows how many outfitters will even still be around. Rivers have surely reshaped themselves, and we should accept that rather than attempt to control them. Last week's event may not be the last flood of this magnitude with the changing climate.

I know that we've passed the threshold on parts per billion of carbon in the atmosphere and now weather patterns are unpredictable, erratic at best. Climate change is resulting in increased turbulence in air traffic. Climate change is causing extreme weather patterns. I recommend reading Bill McKibben's Eaarth: Life on a New Planet for a good description of climate change's impacts.

Understanding and accepting climate change is not like a belief in the Catholic religion or the afterlife, climate change deniers possess instead a misunderstanding of the natural world. With this round of floods in the Ozarks, people have lost their lives, their homes, their way of life. Some folks are comparing this to the floods of 1993 and 1995 which resulted in large areas of the Missouri River floodplain to return to nature, areas taken out of farming. The effects of soil erosion, of debris, of failed septic systems, of exotic species, and of hazardous chemicals cannot even be fathomed at this time. Climate change is not debatable and at this point it's irreversible.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Searching for Slipper Orchids in the Ozarks

Stepping out of the car on a chilly and cloudy morning this week, I could see the green-up in the understory. Lots of wildflowers in bloom and lots of perennials like rattlesnake master all coming up through the burned landscape. It's been several years since I've seen this population of yellow lady slipper orchids, a super charismatic plant but one that the deer love. With a burgeoning deer population, our slipper orchid population dwindled to the point of potential extinction, so we installed large 16 ft. cattle panels to create an exclosure to see if the plants would come up inside versus outside the exclosure. For the past three years, the orchids haven't come up at all, or, they've come up but been browsed off by hungry deer before we could detect them.

Yellow lady slipper orchids are not particularly rare, but they are loyal to intact soil profiles and are generally associated with high quality natural communities. On my hike this week, we sauntered into super high quality habitat, one free of exotic species and with intact soils and a suite of other native plants. The steep slope was a nightmare to navigate in my lousy running shoes, but between the large populations of goldenseal and other moist, mesic-loving species, I was able to traverse the hillside without causing ecological damage. Step by step, don't step on plants.

We counted 34 stems this week, an increase of 34 stems from last year when we couldn't document a single plant. These lovely orchids are particularly favored by deer, which may account for the low stem counts in years' past. While I still think there are too many deer in this location, seeing so many slipper orchids is a sign that maybe the deer are on the run or lower in density than I previously thought. Spotlight counts are showing low numbers, as well. With deer populations increasing across Missouri, we need to consider that this population's low count may be erratic. It's nice to see the slipper orchids again, and their appearance correlates to the low deer density of the spotlight counts and browse surveys. Is it coincident?

Nevertheless, it was great to visit a high quality natural community to verify a population of a rare plant. Aside from the slipper orchids we also documented black and white warblers, Louisiana waterthrush, and common yellowthroat warblers. Visiting nice natural systems is always a treat, a visit to invariably see many more species than I was hoping to see. This week was not unlike the rest.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

10 Years of Norton: Stone Hill's Vertical Tasting

About a year ago, my lovely friends from South Carolina, the Norton Wine Travelers, sent me an email and copied fellow Norton enthusiasts from Nebraska inviting us to the 2017 Norton Vertical Tasting Dinner at Stone Hill Winery in Hermann. I had never formally met the couple from Nebraska, and I had only visited the Norton Wine Travelers in person once or twice before though we're frequent correspondents. We all "met" through Catch Wine, a fun website where one can write reviews of local wineries. The Norton Wine Travelers, who are also magnolia scholars and collectors, contacted me years ago after reading my lengthy reviews of Missouri Nortons. With the couple from Nebraska and other Norton fans, the International Norton Wine Society was formed. Our friendship formed because we appreciate Norton. This is not a secret to anyone who knows me.

And so, Saturday, April 8 rolled around and we descended on Hermann along with other magnolia friends and wine enthusiasts from California who were a little unfamiliar with this outstanding grape. While I was working, they all explored the Hermann area's wine country and collected wine. Lots of wine. One may not be aware of this, but South Carolina, very unlike Missouri, is not known for producing supple, palatable dry wines, so trips to Missouri often result in cellar-stocking purchases. They are true ambassadors of the Norton grape; they keep the registry of all the Norton producers and give such fun reviews. They've even shared with me examples from premier Virginia wineries, Texas wineries and too many other to count. At this point, I still prefer many Missouri Nortons over all the others.

The evening of the tasting, we walked up that steep hill to Stone Hill from the city park where the NWTs had set up their camper for the week. Lovely appetizers and Stone Hill's terrific sparkling Blanc du Blanc circulated. I finally met the charming Nebraska couple whose reviews I had read, while showering them with my compliments to Nebraska's wines which I first discovered on my way to Jackson Hole in 2008. As the sun set on the vineyard, we moved inside to be greeted with large farmhouse tables with ten perfectly polished Reidel Norton glasses, all with three ounces of ten years of Norton vintages. At the base of the glass, they had written the year with a small Sharpie marker. "Pong. Pong. Pong" went the glasses while folks surreptitiously began tasting all of this delicious wine while the emcee for the night talked about Norton, the history of Stone Hill Winery, and Missouri wine. It's hard to be quiet when ten crystal glasses are resting next to one another but, you really want to start tasting.

We all had a sheet before us with winemaker's notes on each vintage. 2007, the hard frost year that turned the woodland canopy to black leaves in April, was "leaner in style than the 2008, perhaps more Bordeaux-like with a complex mix of fruit, oak and hints of pencil shavings and dried herbs." Yes, each vintage had its own lengthy descriptors and space for personal notes. Interestingly, lined up side by side, one could note obvious differences in color through the years; the 2007 was a brick red while the barrel tasting of 2015 resembled a Beaujolais Nouveau. My favorite, hands down, was the 2012 vintage, the drought year, a "vintage like no other...producing the softest, lowest acid Norton ever, showing ripe blackberry and cassis with sweet oak notes and ripe tannins." If I could afford it, I would have picked up a case of the 2012. Which brings me to the cynical comment overheard at my table: "I think I see what's going on. They serve a fancy dinner, a lot of wine and a vertical tasting as a way to unload their older vintages."

Yes, maybe the evening was ultimately designed to make money, make lots of money off of Norton enthusiasts, but it was a delicious meal, full of fabulous wine, and the best part was the camaraderie with the society members. And that 2001 vintage served with dinner.

If you've never perused Catch Wine, settle in and be prepared for a treat. You'll learn that a lot of folks are still smitten with sweet wine, but the dry drinkers offer lengthy reviews of wineries. Once while scrolling through the reviews to map a route through Oklahoma, I read an hysterical review of a winery-alpaca operation where the unsuspecting winery guests were being strong-armed into buying not wine, but alpaca. It made for a great story, but the winery had closed so I couldn't visit. Join in on the fun, and when you see that lovely rhododendron photo, you'll know you're reading the review of quite possibly the most knowledgeable Norton enthusiast, the founder of the Norton Wine Society and cherished friend.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Spring comes to the Ozarks

Despite the past week's downright gloomy and cold weather, it's difficult to stay indoors when I know spring wildflowers are in bloom. On March 9, I noted my first-of-the-year blooming hoary puccoon, a flower that normally doesn't bloom until mid-April. However, it was on a glade we burned in January so those warm February days certainly tricked it to come up early.

Morel season and the spring peeper chorus are well underway. Too, areas rich with bush honeysuckle are particularly striking, but in a bad way. This allelopathic exotic shrub is taking over the state, mostly in urban areas but could easily escape into more rural settings. And it simply ruins the spring wildflower display. Without the bright, leaf-off canopy of early spring, socked in under honeysuckle which greens up before everything else, the delicate white petals of anemones and bloodroot have no chance.

Bluebells started blooming a couple of weeks ago, definitely among my favorite of the spring wildflowers. And Dutchman's breeches are coming on strong this week. It's no surprise that many of us are out of the office on a routine basis at this time of year. I have my eyes peeled for the springtime bee that feeds on spring beauty, out for a short time during the bloom cycle then back underground until next spring. The fleeting nature of spring in the Ozarks makes it imperative to get out, hike around, and marvel at these diverse floral displays.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Rally in the 100 Acre Wood

Sidled up next to our friend Dylan last Sunday at Flatbranch, I learned about his weekend activities. He had gone to Salem to visit friends and to take a hike when his local guide suggested they go to the woods to watch a car race. He's not particularly into car racing, but to his surprise, this European-style rally was a big deal. Spectators lined the narrow gravel roads to watch as national and international drivers and their lone map-reading passenger took to the winding roads outside of Salem.

The Rally in the 100 Acre Wood occurred last weekend in not only Salem, but outside of Potosi and Sullivan in what is described as among the most scenic rallies of the National Rally America circuit. From their website, I learned that the races covered "over 120 racing miles that will test rally teams from all across the country (and several foreign countries) on a variety of gravel road surfaces." The event happened March 17-18 and began with a rally car show and opening ceremony. Rally teams competed throughout each day, passing multiple spectator points, and returned to Salem Saturday night. My friend watched from the woods while rally cars with driver and guide names plastered on the side whizzed by. I don't know how much local participation there is for this race, but he mentioned a tricked-out Ford Focus on the circuit that really surprised him with its speed and agility.

Before the race, at the opening ceremonies, spectators were allowed to see the cars and mingle with the drivers, and to take photos with them and their cars. Considering the state of some of our gravel roads in the Ozarks, I would also think that this is probably one of the more harrowing rallies on the national circuit. I drive a 2001 Honda Civic and sometimes have a hard time traversing the roads to wineries, long and winding paths with boulders and potholes. I'm convinced one day I'll lose my oil pan on my way to a winery or going down a Forest Service road in my car. With the amount of preparation and the national status of this Rally in the 100 Acre Wood, I feel confident road crews made this raceway a smooth route. It sure will be nice for all the Dent Co. morel hunters.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Nature of the Unnatural

Earlier last week, I set out for the Ozarks for two days of checking firelines. Driving south on a 30 degree morning in early March, I noticed very little green on the landscape. The roadside fescue was starting to green up, henbit had turned tilled fields into swaths of lavender flowers, but along a long stretch of the 150 mile route, the roadsides were a homogeneous deciduous winter brown. Well, winter brown interspersed with a few cedars and the stark white billowing flowers of Bradford pear trees, trees that stuck out sickly sweet from the otherwise winter landscape.

Around seven years ago, I had heard that Bradford pears, the fast-growing non-native landscape tree that always maintains a perfect lollipop tree stature, were showing up deep in the Ozarks in vegetation sampling plots. Efforts to eradicate them from disturbed areas continue, but landscapers still choose this flowering and fruiting tree for horticultural instant gratification. And now they're spreading everywhere. On March 8, they were the only flowering tree on the landscape barring the early bud break of serviceberry, mostly found in nicer intact woods and certainly not as prevalent as the persistent Bradford pears along the highway. In fact, during two days of hiking through high quality natural areas, I only encountered a couple serviceberries in flower, always among the first of the native spring trees to bloom, usually three to four weeks earlier than dogwood.

Considering that so much of our landcover has been disturbed by logging, grazing, interruption of natural fire regimes and development encroachment, it came as no surprise that I could take this classic photo of what would happen if we stopped managing our native places and allowed homogenization to occur on a landscape scale. Dominant plants to include bush honeysuckle, Bradford pear and cedars with nothing in the understory, and any native flora clipped off by Missouri's ever-burgeoning deer population, maybe some scattered plants like broomsedge, wintercreeper, and the weedier Geum. But this was on a roadside next to a grocery store which I had stopped into for plain Greek yogurt and some peanuts for the field.

Nevertheless, with so much development pressure in the Ozarks, fragmentation, lack of fire, and exotics (and deer overpopulation), many of our native settings are turning into this. Away from the lot next to the grocery and in a 17,000 acre nature preserve to conduct browse surveys, I encountered cedar trees that had been browsed so heavily by deer in the absence of other food that they looked like alien trees. When you encounter a cedar that looks like this, there may be too many damned deer.

Unnatural levels of deer herbivory as a direct result of too many deer on the landscape, the lack of predators and increased biogeographical islands being formed by development pressure will result in serious overbrowsing. At least I only saw serviceberry and some scattered spring ephemerals in flower here rather than a greening out understory of bush honeysuckle and Bradford pear.

So, as is customary of exotics in the Ozarks and elsewhere, the Bradford pears and bush honeysuckle were triggered to break dormancy because of the warm weather. With climate change occurring on our clock, the warm spells in February and the first week of March lasted a lot longer and were warmer than in years past. But the bulk of the natives seem to be smarter than to come out when the threat (and reality) of 15 degree nights are still probable and likely in March, our traditionally snowiest month, with the last frost-free date not until mid-April. The shading out of the woodland floor by bush honeysuckle and the allelopathic nature of the rootstock are the precise reasons landowners in the Ozarks need to be worried about this wave of a closed canopy-thriving exotic shrub. Our spring wildflower displays are usually so incredible because the spring wildflowers are able to break through the leaf litter during early spring because there is no shading from the oak and hickory-dominated canopy. Bush honeysuckle puts an end to that.

This week, when the temperatures plummeted to the teens and highs just barely above freezing, the Bradford pear flowers all burned, straight to brown. Every time I see a browned out Bradford pear, I smile, knowing that now that the flowers are toast, they probably won't be pollinated, which means this year they won't produce fruit, which means birds won't spread the seed at least this one year. Sadly, the bush honeysuckle is still thriving. Passive management just may not cut it anymore if we want to keep natural areas full of native nature.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

In Search of Timberdoodles

The reports of the arrival of woodcocks began a few weeks ago in Missouri. These charismatic birds are a signature sign of early spring, small, brown birds, the size of a quail, with a long, black probing beak that can penetrate the roughest soils to find insects. In the Ozarks and elsewhere, woodcocks are also known as Timberdoodles, birds that hang around old fields near the timber line. They're not the most gracious birds, flitting about as gracefully as a Northern bobwhite quail, but when they arrive, it usually means spring is around the corner so they're always a welcome sight. Their big black eyes and long beak are hard to mistake for any other bird, but their breeding behavior is really quite spectacular.

For the past four years, my Audubon chapter has set out at sunset in perfect timberdoodle habitat to find these birds and to witness their mating dance. In the past four years, we've seen decreasing numbers of these charismatic birds, due to either the habitat being overgrown and without fire or a general decline in their numbers across the board. Missing the timberdoodle isn't likely due to observer error, this bird makes it abundantly clear when present. With a characteristic "peent!" call, the timberdoodle will call from a woodland edge or another scrubby, shrubby area. Our traditional birding site is an old farm field with rank warm season grasses and scattered cedars. The whole area is reverting to woodland with lots of trees moving in, which is good for woodland birds but not so good for the timberdoodles.

We set out at 5:30 and hiked to the junction of the trail where we've traditionally seen these birds flutter high in the sky and then plummet down in accordance with the traditional mating ritual. The shrubby area played host to a lot of lingering white-throated sparrows and the sunset calls of the American robin were definitely part of the evening soundtrack. We saw one song sparrow with that big blotch on his chest, and then started playing a recording of the timberdoodle call: "Peent!" "Peent!" No answer. A barred owl started calling with the customary "Who Cooks for You!" call, but no woodcocks. With so many old fields in the Ozarks these birds should be in good shape from a habitat perspective, but through time, as we're seeing at our traditional birding site, the habitat is disappearing. I think that traditionally these birds used savannas, areas of open grown oaks with a thick grass-forb layer. This landscape type is uncommon now, and for birds, the surrogate is old fields.

There are areas around our traditional timberdoodle stomping grounds that still offer ample woodcock habitat. These areas are managed with regularly occurring prescribed fire to keep the woody brush at bay while stimulating the herbaceous layer. I do love timberdoodles like I adore Chuck will's-widow and Whip-por-wills, signs of the Ozarks and of spring. This ancient breeding ritual continues in shrublands across the Ozark Highlands, so hopefully you'll see it soon. While March is our snowiest month, even the natives have been triggered that spring thaw is near.