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.