Monday, March 12, 2018

Around the Corner

As I type, the afternoon sun continues to melt the two inches of snow that fell on Sunday. Shaded areas are still socked in white, with daffodil leaves sprouting up from the snow, a definite sign of spring in the Midwest. Last week, I hiked firelines from winter burns and in the bare mineral soil of the line, I saw my first of the season spring beauty leaves, large, strappy leaves that accompany such a lovely pale pink wildflower. We really haven't witnessed a miserable winter in years now, and this weekend's snow event was likely the largest for the season. But with daylight savings time, the longer days and warmer weather ushers in the growing season in the Ozarks.

Fire season isn't the same as it was even as recently as eleven years ago. There used to be days in the fall when you could look out your window and see a flag flying in the right direction, feel the crunch of the leaves, and submit a spot forecast to the fine folks at Springfield NOAA that was on point, "Today's a good day for fire!" This season we saw the extremes of climatic expression--either flooding rains for days or high winds triggering red flag warnings. There were once days not too long ago when one could drive any major road in the Ozarks and see large plume-dominated fires across the landscape. If one person burned, the whole county burned. It doesn't happen like that anymore. Our landscapes are now so fragmented and weather so extreme that to burn responsibly in many cases, fire must be accomplished on a much smaller scale for the health of a given ecosystem. So I seek out the areas that were burned to begin sampling in June...mostly on glades and dry chert woodlands, my narrow area of knowledge.

On Friday, hiking that fireline positioned above the beautiful Niangua River on a crisp March morning, I heard the distinct call of spring. Not the spring peepers--I heard them in late January, but a lone Eastern phoebe was calling from a rock face, flicking its tail up and down and hopefully finding some of the early emerging insects for foraging. The dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows, our boreal forest friends, are still around this week, but the red-shouldered hawks in my neighborhood are exhibiting breeding behavior. Waterfowl and wading birds are on the move, big rafts of white pelicans can be seen in most ponds and recreational lakes. The Northern shovelers are particularly handsome right now in full breeding plumage.

As a gardener in Louisiana fifteen years before we hit the tipping point of carbon in the atmosphere, I relished the day in January when the garden stores rolled out their Farmer's Almanac. I started all of my seeds inside and knew the dates of the last potential frost (well, which never really occurred in New Orleans). This past fall I was able to sow seeds of kale well into October and gather a full crop into December. The USDA growing zones have shifted, we have drought and flood and hardly anything in between. I haven't flipped through a Farmer's Almanac in several years, but wonder how they are even trying to predict weather in this unstable climate that we've created for ourselves. We live in the new world.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Into a Cave

Missouri is lucky to have so many cave enthusiasts in positions that serve to protect our state's cave and karst resources. I had never been in an Ozark cave until 1998. Of course I've visited lava tubes out in Oregon, Carlsbad Caverns, some caves in Arkansas, but my first visit to a Missouri cave didn't happen until the late 1990s, a time when I didn't know anything at all about cave biology. Since then, I've learned a lot about the endemic fauna and have worked with researchers and experts who have doggedly documented cave life. Each of Missouri's caves are highly dynamic with suites of species in some caves found no where else in the world. Not only are the speleothems particularly beautiful, but the geologic formations, the biota, the air flow, all of these factors work together to make each cave distinct and unique. I have embarked on a cave visit that occurred over 18 hours in one cave-- we entered in darkness early one morning and exited in darkness late at night. I really respect and admire cavers who can spend (and relish) many hours in total darkness.

This week's field work took me to an area with a series of caves located in one primary valley, a valley now completely flooded with the recent deluge (February is usually our driest month, but it's turning out to be one of the wettest). I had a map to the caves in this area and, as a biologist, I wanted to check biological records: bats, flies, spiders, grotto salamanders. Most of the caves in this area are small shelters with barely a dark zone (21 ft. deep), and frankly (non-biologically speaking) I was interested in one in particular, a cave that had been purposed in the late 1800s to be a hog lot during the days of open range grazing. Stepping over multiple strands of abandoned hogwire fencing, and seeing the evidence of major overgrazing with the preponderance of buckbrush and little other vegetation, I knew we were in the vicinity.

The notes on this cave mentioned that it had been used as a hog pen. The notes also mentioned that there were "external walls used as a corn crib." So, I had never seen a cave in Missouri re-purposed as an agricultural feature besides those used for mushroom farming. And I've seen a cave with moonshine equipment, one used for bootlegging, but never one used as a hog pen. Following the topographical lines on the map, we found the cave and the dolomite boulder walls used as a hog run. The cave was totally trashed out from years of use as a hog pen, so the floor was completely dug up and not from illegal artifact looters. Next to the run, there was a concrete circle that was undoubtedly the corn crib described in the cave description.

At night when I'm reading ecology books, I often think about what Missouri would have been like 200 or more years ago. I see these remnant ecosystems that have been restored to the best quality possible, and I think of what has been lost. Every square inch of the Ozarks has seen open range grazing during settlement. All of the high C value plants, the ice cream plants, were selectively grazed, browsed, and many times extirpated from the landscape. This Ozark cave that was used as a hog pen was probably a very significant Native American dwelling site, a cave with a long dark zone and a second opening, high on the landscape to avoid flooding of the stream. The cave has probably been looted, artifacts sold on the market or even holed up in someone's home, and now the remnants of the hog lot, a cultural feature in itself, may be all that remain of this cave's human history.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Annual Great Backyard Bird Count Underway!

Every year on President's Day weekend, birdwatchers across the globe participate in Cornell Ornithology Laboratory's Great Backyard Bird Count. Like many of my friends and fellow Audubon Society members, I am participating in this fun citizen science event once again this year. While the title of the event suggests backyard birding only, the term "backyard" loosely refers to any place where one can find birds (that is, everywhere). For example, wetland cells in conservation areas are particularly popular for documenting waterfowl, and other natural places are already listed as "birding hotspots." Similarly, many folks are restricting their birdwatching to their actual backyards. Mine is listed in my eBird account as "Ridgeway Backyard," definitely not a Missouri birding hotspot, but I like to keep track of the birds in my yard (especially for the official bird count weekend).

All weekend I've been waiting for the 30mph wind gusts to die down so I can chalk up a more illustrious list from a nearby state park rather than only submitting lists from my yard. Because I live in an urban area, the fun birds like black-capped chickadees and red-bellied woodpeckers are really active in the early morning until the house sparrow gang shows up around mid-morning. But these high wind gusts are skunking woodland birders. For example, Painted Rock Conservation Area in Osage County is normally a great birding hotspot. One friend visited yesterday and only saw four species of birds and low numbers of those four species--a bald eagle, a couple of bluebirds and sparrows. I don't want to submit a small checklist for one of the bird rich areas in this park, so I'm crossing my fingers the wind settles down so I can take my bird hike.

Today is the last day of the GBBC, and it is not too late to sign up and count birds! Participation is not mandatory to explore the data, either. Visit here to see the Missouri checklist submissions. St. Charles County leads the herd with the number of submitted checklists, with Boone County coming in second as of this morning. Some Ozark counties have no submitted checklists. See if yours is one of them and start counting birds!

Monday, January 29, 2018

January's Fire Season

We are experiencing longer daylengths in Missouri now that we're past Christmas and the winter solstice. With longer days, one would think fire season would avail itself, at least for smaller units that could result in consumption of leaf litter in a short period of time. However, we've gone from too wet to too windy to red flag conditions like an erratic teenager testing out head meds. Despite the recent rain and snow events, Missouri is still largely in abnormally dry and drought conditions. See the Drought Monitor Rating Map here.

After a little smattering of rain and relative humidities hovering around 40%, we decided to conduct a test burn on a small- very small -patch of woodland of oak leaf litter and scattered forbs. Around 2pm, the fire moved well across the landscape but colleagues in other fuel models, especially grassland fuels, had a hard time containing their fires as the sun started setting. Usually when sunset falls in January, fire behavior calms down, but instead 1,000 hour fuels were smoldering and threatening wildfire conditions in advance of the next morning's winds. Missouri is so far behind on acres treated with fire, all because of the changes in the fire weather and climate. The unseasonably warm fall didn't allow for fire with high winds, incredibly dry fuels. Here we are in winter when we can traditionally polish off a few small units before sunset, but it's still so dry, so windy. When the official fire season begins, I think it will be rapid fire pacing to accomplish all of these burns before green-up begins. If we can't even burn these tiny units in January, I worry that March and April will result in highly flammable conditions across the Ozarks.

Even as recent as ten years ago, one could walk out the door, look at the flagging tape for wind direction, feel the crunch of the leaves and call a good fire day. We don't see that anymore. Everything is extreme. It's extremely dry, extremely windy, and we're witnessing either extremely low or high humidities. When we fall behind in prescribed fire implementation, biodiversity loses. Fingers crossed for good fire weather this winter.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Winter Birding

My eBird lists are few and far between. This year I promise I will add more to my eBird account, but in the meantime, I'm busy tallying up the results of four Christmas Bird Counts and three winter bird surveys. It's been a cold couple of weeks with birding beginning at 7am some days and 7 degrees. Yesterday's birding trip in the Outer Ozark Border must have been the most clement with temperatures reaching 17 degrees. Heatwave!

Winter birding is probably the best activity for beginning birders. There is only a finite amount of species that avail themselves during winter months. Yesterday in an open grassland setting, I was able to have clear views of American tree sparrows, about 6 of them, and never before had I witnessed such great views. The gray V on the chest was clearly visible--they're kind of like the winter version of the chipping sparrow with the rusty cap. We also saw four red-headed woodpeckers, and 24 other species. It's nice birding in the winter because there are no leaves on the trees and the birds are much easier seen. I try to recruit novices during winter months precisely because winter birding is so easy.

With the end of the Christmas Bird Count last week, we may start seeing migration of our feathered friends. National Geographic magazine listed 2018 as the Year of the Bird, coinciding with the 100th Anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a protective measure that is slowly being undermined by our national political scene. But next up in the Citizen Science realm is the Great Backyard Bird Count! This event occurs during President's Day weekend in February and includes realtime tallies across the country. It's a fun event and I'll be participating by not only visiting my local state park but also my yard, hoping for more diversity than I've had lately. My bald male cardinal is a regular visitor, and I don't have starlings, but I have a homogeneous assortment of white throated and exotic sparrows with a few doves and a black capped chickadee. The downy woodpeckers have worn out my suet feeder so I keep that restocked, as well. Nevertheless, there are some feeder watchers with pine siskins and purple finches and a much greater diversity of species. Yes, I'll be in a native environment for the Great Backyard Bird Count. If you're interested in birdwatching, now is the time to get involved. Birds are easy to see without leaves on the trees and the species count is low. But so rewarding. When I fill my birdbath with warm water every morning, I call it "giving them coffee." I connect with my backyard birds and with all of them I encounter in the woods.