Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Winter Foraging

This must have been the first time since I lived in New Orleans that as winter solstice arrived, my Christmas tree remained undecorated. I cut down my rangy cedar on December 7 and it stood sentry inside in the corner window without lights, but with a continual supply of fresh water. It wasn't until December 22, the night before I set out for Louisiana, that I wrapped our C7 bulbs around this beautiful cedar and set out about 100 of our favorite old ornaments including many handmade by my grandmother Marie. As a veteran Episcopalian, the tree will remain decorated until Epiphany, the beginning of Carnival. Afterwards, it will join the other (now decaying) Christmas cedars in my brushpile for the white-throated sparrows to hide in as they protect themselves from the neighborhood Cooper's hawk and that awful patrolling orange cat.

Several years ago, I made a discovery at the local Lowe's hardware store that all of the trimmings from their Frazier firs, Douglas firs, and Scotch pines are heaped into huge cardboard boxes and made available for free to anyone who wants the greenery. I make swags for my neighbors, I use the greenery as finishing touches for gift wrapping, and I set it out around the house on bookshelves and window sills. For at least a few days, the house smells like Christmas rather than three dogs. So, by December 7 I at least had greenery and a few Christmas knick knacks scattered around. And then there's my wreath.

Every year in late fall, as native plant material begins to cure, I begin collecting dried material from my yard and from a friend's property nearby to decorate a grapevine wreath I made. Several years ago, I added thick handfuls of beautiful inland sea oats, an aggressive native with persistent drooping khaki seedheads. As I took apart the wreath, I threw all of the material over the porch railing; two years later, I witnessed a big stand of this pretty grass exactly where I threw the dried material. Today, I have my own source of this charismatic dried plant and the goldfinches love it.

I really like finding huge aster bracts (oblongifolius is a good one) and some of the later goldenrods that continue to possess yellow stalks long into winter. In recent years, I've started adding silvery Baptisia stalks. While I'm generally not a fan of big clumps of buckbrush, the berries are really quite pretty though lack real nutrition for birds. Unfortunately, too, multiflora rose possesses multiple rosehips that are a brilliant red. I never add multiflora rosehips because the Carolina wrens often gorge on my wreath seeds and I do not want to be responsible for spreading this horrible plant. New this year is donated river birch bark that a friend gave me; I have quite a bit of it, so it will surely come back next year.

As the days imperceptibly grow longer, thoughts turn to the necessity of our fire regimes for the sustainability of all of these lovely winter stalks. I once read that folks in the Ozarks historically used green Christmas fern fronds for their wreaths because of the lack of cedars. I think next year I might try that.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Christmas Bird Count Begins

Yesterday morning at 7:30, the sun barely crept up above the hills at the nature area I was assigned to canvass for my Audubon chapter's annual Christmas Bird Count. Stepping out of the car and zipping up my coat, I immediately tallied four Northern cardinals, two white-breasted nuthatches, an American goldfinch and a bald eagle flying over head. This annual event takes place between December 14 and January 5 this season, and my chapter traditionally holds our count the first Saturday of the official count period.

Temperatures were a little warmer and the windspeeds picked up a little higher than desired yesterday, but throughout our count circle, Audubon members documented 95 species. At the end of the day, we host a tally party potluck with lots of pots of different kinds of chili, sides and a huge dessert table. We project the checklist onto the cinderblock wall of a local church and go through the list, asking each group how many of each bird species they witnessed during the day. Notable missing species this year was wild turkey. No one saw a wild turkey and Lincoln's sparrow numbers were way down this year. I only counted two white-throated sparrows, which is unheard of for a Christmas Bird Count in our area, but the rest of my team picked up an additional 95 of the little guys.

A city-owned nature area with a stream running through it- complete with thickly vegetated streambanks that held the key to our bird numbers- served as the nucleus of my area, 2 North. Unlike some birders, I'm not loyal to one of the 8 given areas; I like to bounce around and visit new places each year while also helping out the groups that don't have a lot of counters. The leader of my group was home with sick children and continually populated my text messages with accounts of only American robins in his yard, bummed that he couldn't get out. He did finally break away in the afternoon and revisited areas that I missed; it's a good thing he did, too, because I got skunked trying to find our area's brown creeper, a traditional species that certainly inhabits these thick bottomland woodlands. He went out and found one.

The highlight of my morning was the song sparrow on the streambank and the 45 Northern cardinals we saw throughout the day. Area 2N witnessed the most abundant cardinals, black-capped chickadees and red-bellied woodpeckers than any of the other areas. While I realize these are common woodland birds, they remain lovely creatures and it was fun to see one of each every time I hoisted my binoculars to my eyes.

I heard reports last night at the tally party that some of Missouri's other count circles are low on observers. If you're interested in helping out with a Christmas Bird Count, visit here to find a circle.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

A Destructive Trend

In recent months as I hike well-trod trails through the Ozarks, I have noticed an increase in the practice of rock stacking. Historically, this was likely done to blaze a trail or to mark water sources. Today, with increasing hiking pressure in our natural places, visible trails don't necessarily require rock stacking to lead the path. In wilderness, small stacks of rocks to create stream crossings may be necessary for the less hardy wilderness user. However, the repeated trend of creating large -sometimes 6 ft. tall- towers of rocks is resulting in much damage to our geologic sites and impacting public safety on trails.

I first encountered the destructive practice of rock flipping when I moved here; wildlife collectors routinely find glades in particular to flip rocks and remove snakes, tarantulas, collared lizards. In some glades on publicly owned land, every rock has been flipped which has led to local extirpation of collared lizards and coachwhips. So, that's clearly irresponsible and reckless. Once the seal between rock and soil is broken, habitat is altered, even if the rock is carefully replaced. In the outfit I engage with, this is called disturbing wildlife.

The repeated rock stacking-similar to rock flipping- in highly public and well-traveled places has resulted in injuries as the towers collapse; it has resulted in shattered ancient geologic features; it has morphed into serious vandalism. Have hikers become so far removed from the concepts of Leave No Trace that they feel compelled to "leave a mark?" Is the world not altered enough? Hiking a trail and discovering stacked rocks certainly removes the sense of remoteness and solitude that so many hikers seek in our natural places. While this human value set may not be important to some, it is to many. And that's aside from the destruction of habitat. In some publicly owned land, removing or disturbing rocks, minerals, soil, plants and wildlife violates state statutes. Our state's precious geology should rest where it exists so that future generations can witness the development of geologic time.