Saturday, June 23, 2018

Streambanks in June

After long weeks of vegetation sampling and burning red needle stage cedar piles, I paid a visit to a cool, fast, clear Ozark stream for an afternoon. Usually by this time of the summer, we have already been on several float trips, always during the week, preferably on Tuesdays since the Monday crowd is leftover from the weekend and Friday is the beginning of the party scene. I like solitude on the river, time with the wood ducks, great blue herons and river cooters, not other people (especially loud people who might drink too much and start domestic disputes while in a canoe). So, I paid my visit to the river on a Tuesday.

I once had more freedom and time to float at least twice a month during the week, but my other duties as assigned have grown to consume a significant portion of my time. I like being on the river in late March when the Louisiana waterthrush arrive and start singing, again in April when the Virginia bluebells are in flower, in May when the bright pink tall phlox is in bloom, and so forth. I missed April and May, but at least eked in one trip in June to catch the end of the water willow, Justicia americana, one of my favorite streambank plants with flowers that almost resemble a grass pink orchid. Butterflies love it.

Also in bloom this week was lizard's tail, not only restricted to streambanks but found in shrub swamps in the Southeast Missouri Lowlands, a super charismatic plant with tall drooping white flowers. It was a magnet for little beetles and it trapped some small patches of duckweed. Because it's no fun to paddle through a float (unless it's a lousy stretch of no flow and eroded streambanks devoid of vegetation), I stopped in on several gravel bars to check out what was growing in the thick beds of chert gravel. Sadly, most of the vegetation, mostly polygonums, had been completely destroyed by Japanese beetles. The beetles had even turned streambank willow leaves into little lacy networks of leaf shapes. It's too early for Penthorum to be in bloom, but I picked up a nice Veronica in perfect flower with a native bee pollinating it's delicate white and purple flowers.

Barring another catastrophic flood event like we've had multiple times during the past couple of years, the summer streambank flower show is getting primed for awesome blooms. I think of Dutchman's pipe all along the upper Gasconade River, the goldenglow and Lobelias on the upper Current River. Coreopsis pubescens also made a nice appearance on the streambanks this week but the current was so strong I couldn't get over to the other side of the river to take a picture. I'm also looking forward to the Rudbeckia fulgida complex that shows up on our Ozark streams; I once thought they were all a clean R. fulgida, but I learned a couple of years ago that there are many varieties and even many more clean species. I hope to float more in July and August when they are in bloom and my company is with the drone of the morning cicadas.

Friday, June 01, 2018

Becoming June

I set out today on a mission. Perennial wildflowers are putting on a show right now, the rudbeckias, partheniums, all those guys. I didn't set out for a wildflower explosion and a nice hike, but for exotic species control. I had plans to visit areas that hadn't been burned in a year, so I didn't expect to encounter an entire woodland full of butterflies, bees, beetles and birds, but I did. I set out to pull exotic species- sweet clover, in particular, and the sweet clover population was much reduced from years' past, thanks to our undying efforts to eradicate it from the area. But even though this area has not seen a prescribed fire for a year and a little more, the understory response in the flora was mind-blowing. I'm accustomed to walking through burn units post fire and being overwhelmed with the understory response, but this is year 2 for this unit and it's still ridiculously rich, lush, full of great invertebrates and the accompanying bird life. And relatively free of exotics.

It remains amazing to me that at least in my favorite area that we have been able to keep out the bush honeysuckle, garlic mustard, Japanese stilt grass, sweet clover and other exotics that are destroying Missouri's native landscapes. For the past few weeks I've been retiring to bed to read Cora Steyermark's book, Behind the Scenes, Julian Steyermark's wife's account of traveling throughout Missouri for the effort of completing the Flora of Missouri. I've really enjoyed the book, and I am sad that I didn't encounter Missouri when they did, a place without bush honeysuckle, sericea, and other exotic species that may not have even been documented from Missouri for the 1963 Flora. I have truly enjoyed reading about their encounters with what we now know as "Steyermark sites", the lost prairies of north Missouri, the Dodecatheon amethystinum site that we visit every year to keep bush honeysuckle from invading. I think often of Steyermark's visits to Missouri, and I think of my own visits even ten years ago before climate change really started showing itself in ugly fashion. Bush honeysuckle was only known from one county in Missouri in the 1963 Flora. A county around St. Louis. Today it threatens every county in the state, including counties in the Current River Hills, an area that we once thought was immune to exotics invasion. Alas, bush honeysuckle races up the hillsides. This is frightening.

So we protect the places that need to be protected. The Niangua Basin and Osage River Hills are worthy of protection. For the sustainability of our natural systems we need natural places, areas that are not constructed with random genetic material. These areas I visit that are rich with flora and fauna remind me of the the places the Steyermarks encountered, places rich with floral diversity and immersed in native habitats. Reading Cora's book has been a lot of fun at night as I go to bed, and wondering what book is next.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Reliably Late Spring

Mid-May is officially past us, and the end of spring wildflower season occurred two to three weeks ago in the Ozarks. Finally, long delayed, the oaks have leafed out, all of the interesting migratory birds have passed through my yard and we're in breeding season. With this wonderful time of the year comes the annual visits to known perennial plant populations, plants that show up every year like clockwork, and visits just to check, count stems, and to see our state's incredible diversity.

I spent a couple of days this week in the Missouri River Hills portion of the state, officially out of the Ozark Highlands but in the Outer Ozark Border, an area with lots of limestone and much deeper soils. We visited two sites of the federally endangered Running Buffalo Clover, a super charismatic clover with huge flowering heads and runners that take root to produce more plants. I was fortunate to spend the day with a handful of Missouri's leading ecologists and botanists, a day well spent looking at not only rare plants, but common plants, and birds like Cerulean warblers, butterflies and tiger beetles. Days in the field with like-minded folks are always welcome. This week, I'm back to spraying and pulling exotic species and seeing the ugly side of the natural world, that of invasion by non-native invasive species. In the meanwhile, I'll enjoy these photos of yellow lady slipper orchids and the thriving population of Running Buffalo Clover! If someone can identify the beetle in the last photo, super thanks!

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Fallout

It was 5:32 am on Saturday when I turned over in bed because I heard the distinctive call of a Tennessee Warbler in my front yard. It was too early to feed the dog, and two hours before the coffee pot would reliably start to brew the pot of coffee I set up the night before. But I was awake. On Friday, I returned to Missouri from the ecological wasteland of Kansas' Flint Hills, a landscape completely depauperate of native flora, but home to vast landscape-scale viewing of storms, big storms, tornadic storms that race across this barren area. These storms in Kansas made their way through the Central Flyway and pushed all kinds of cool birds into mid-Missouri just in time for the Global Big Day on May 5.

The flush of red-breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore orioles, white-crowned sparrows, and golden-winged warblers were easy to see high in the canopy on Saturday which helped me tally a decent checklist for the big day. But backyard birding was never better than Saturday morning! I logged 35 species from my urban backyard, and those were just the ones I could see and identify by call.

Shorebird migration is considerably awesome right now as well with phalaropes and dowitchers coming in on the mudflats. It is only at this time of year when I hear random, rare bird songs of distinctive, unfamiliar birds that wake me up or pull me from the garden to search for these charismatic animals high in the canopy of my yard's oak trees. Oaks are known to attract many species of warblers because they serve as the host plant for hundreds of species of invertebrates upon which warblers depend for breeding success. Today's visitors to my orange slices included not only the Baltimore orioles but a Nashville warbler. I hear their call daily now. If I only tallied the birds I see, the list would be small. To include the birds I hear, the list is large. Migration is a magical time. Keep up the seed feeders, suet feeders, hummingbird feeders, orange slices and grape jelly. Neighbors with all kinds of urban habitat are seeing rose-breasted grosbeaks like the one from my friend's yard pictured below. It's hard to be inside at this time of year.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Delayed Spring

It is truly odd to realize that May 1 arrives this week and the oaks are not yet fully leafed out in much of the state. Bird migration continues, with loads of palm warblers and hermit thrushes showing up in the Ozarks. My backyard house wrens arrived this week and just today started nest building in the handmade nest box that hangs from my cedar tree. While I recognize I am not a longtime resident of Missouri, I admit that this is the first time I've seen serviceberry still in bloom and the dogwoods barely open in the last week of April. The flowering dogwood festivals that took place throughout the region earlier in the month didn't witness blooming dogwoods.

With warbler migration in full swing two weeks ago and continuing, I worry about what the earlier visitors ate on those cold, windy "spring" days. My local Audubon chapter received several bird identification queries regarding warblers trying to find food on the ground since there were no insects to be found in the trees. It is not their usual feeding habit and it confused budding birdwatchers. Many birds depend on the little caterpillars and insects attracted to the budding oaks, so a late spring bud break like this year, or an early leaf on like in 2013, may be detrimental to successful bird reproduction.

But the bluebells are putting on quite a show this week and the morels are up. It's always a shame, however, to discover another garden plant like this exotic, aggressive, rhizomatous yellow-flowering mint family plant completely taking over a streambank and choking out the wild ginger and spring beauty. And it's for sale at WalMart.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Earth Day, Revisited

Friday, April 20, 2018

Bad Times, a New Threat

A couple of days ago, I heard from a friend that we have a new exotic species in the spring flora world to worry about. First, it was Veronica hederifolia, which I've written about, an annual weed known from Steyermark 1963 from one county but now spreading throughout the Ozarks, a plant that we've been on top of eradicating in sinkholes in certain high quality sites. But this new one is more insidious, much more along the lines of garlic mustard, a plant that chokes out native flora long before the sunlight can hit the woodland floor. It's a buttercup, a real pretty garden plant, but this exotic buttercup creates entire mats of leaves and has no known native host insects. As a side note, I spent a good part of my day looking for native bees nectaring on native spring wildflowers (and found several, including the spring beauty andrena that only lives on Claytonia virginica with its pink pollen). Instead, the thick, dense vegetation of this exotic weed chokes out all of the spring wildflowers such as spring beauty.

So, today I saw this Ranunculus ficaria var. bulbifera in action. This exotic plant has completely converted a bottomland woodland once rich with bluebells, spring beauty, native buttercups, and toothwort into a monoculture of green basal leaves with showy, but sparse, yellow flowers. Not known in Steyermark, lesser celandine was introduced from Europe to the US in 1867 as a garden ornamental. Yatskievych notes it quickly becomes over aggressive in gardens. The bulbils (hence var. bulbifera) quickly spread when transported by floods, as well as the seeds. Yatskievych noted it quickly spread to disturbed floodplains and was well established in drainages around St. Louis not too long after being discovered. Today, we discovered it completely carpeting the bottomland woodland associated with the Missouri River in Cole County. With a seed bank up and down the big river systems, and undoubtedly in creeks and streams in St. Louis County, this weed will spread and continue to choke out native spring flora. Homogenization is happening at a rapid pace. Now it's not just bush honeysuckle and deer that I've been grousing about for the past 6 years, but even spring flora. If you see this plant, kill it. Spray it with Glyphosate. Hand pulling only encourages it, apparently. I hate herbicides, but when native landscapes are at risk as they are now, and herbicide is the only remedy, use it wisely, surgically, and with good intent. This buttercup is a bad one.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Birds on the Move!

Reports came in this week that several folks have traveled to Stockton Lake area to witness a white-tailed kite hanging around in town. eBird has published a wonderful tool to track bird migration through eBird reports which they coincide with weather patterns. For those of you primarily interested in when the hummingbird feeders need to be up, visit here to find out when they're being spotted in your area. Reports are in from the Cape Girardeau area and Branson country through the Bootheel. For all birds, go here to explore the birdcast website. Go to the live migration maps and watch it as birds fly through the night. It's just a fascinating time of year to see these ancient migration routes back in action.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Finding Rebar

One of the great joys in my life is joining skilled botanists to collect meaningful vegetation data for analysis. I really love digging into old data, data collected in the 1980s and 1990s, and to revisit the same permanent plots to track changes through time. One can learn a lot from long-term data collection; for example, are species disappearing due to deer herbivory? Are the cover values increasing through time because of management regimes? Are exotic or invasive species outcompeting the natives and turning our best remaining landscapes into homogenized ecological garbage?

With fire season being well over, we took to the land to find those historic plots, mostly marked with a piece of rebar, and mostly rebar with number tags and a spray painted top. In burned landscapes, it is a cinch to find pieces of rebar sticking out of the ground. Many of these plots were installed long before GPS units were available, so subsequent to fires and before the vegetation grows to a height to cover these often 1 ft. tall rebar stakes, we enter the location in the GPS. If one waits until April or May to do this, the stakes vanish, only to be revealed again after another fire.

Last Friday, I visited one of Missouri's most frequently studied areas to mark rebar for resampling post fire. Because so many researchers have descended on this high quality area for the past 35 years, the burn unit was literally peppered with rebar--some spray painted, some with metal tags, some bent at an angle. Thankfully, I've researched a lot of these plots before but it was in 2011 and I couldn't remember if the white spray paint was for the fungi research plots, or was that the blue spray paint? Maybe the blue spray paint was the bird monitoring transects. It was high time to dig through the files again. I had even forgotten which plots were the ones that I established in 2009.

We spent the afternoon reflagging and locating all of the vegetation plots, thankfully labeled at the base with embossed metal tags: HB GL Plot 1 T2, et cetera for three total transects with 6 plots, each in pairs. This activity was the easy one; next up, I have to find all of the deer herbivory exclosures which invariably rest under downed trees it seems. Of all the trees that fall in the woodlands in the Ozarks, I think they actively seek out the large cattle panel-constructed deer exclosures before they fall, crushing the exclosures that were established in the 1980s.

But sampling season will be here soon enough, later than in the past couple of years when we had morels in the first week of April. Unlike my breeding bird surveys which I begin in late May, I don't start vegetation sampling until mid-June. It's just so great to see the Ozarks coming back to life after a dreary winter.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Harbingers of Spring

Last week, I made my way into a moist, protected sinkhole to see any wildflowers I could find in bloom. With my radar on high alert, I found hundreds of Erigenia bulbosa in full bloom, commonly called salt and pepper, or harbinger of spring. It was a sunny March 15, right on target for my phenology records of this species. Searching slowly and deliberately, I found flowering bloodroot with the rolled leaves unfurling after the flower is long gone. In this particular sinkhole, the spring wildflower display--truly stunning to behold--is threatened by the presence of an exotic speedwell, Veronica hederifolia, a little invasive lawn weed which forms mats of vegetation that choke out spring wildflowers. But this year, we were on top of it. We have pulled out by the roots bags and bags of this annual weed, long before it flowers and goes to seed. The sinkhole is clear of this little plant and the Virginia bluebells will once again be able to flourish in April.

With the growing season upon us, we've settled into a cold and rainy period, one that is not necessarily benefiting my lettuce seeds which I set out on St. Patrick's Day. Dry woodlands and glades treated with fire during the dormant fall season are beginning to green up; this week I counted hundreds of basal rosettes of Indian paintbrush and Rudbeckia missouriensis on a glade. For good early spring wildflower displays, visit the more mesic settings, forests and cool, damp woodlands, bottomlands, and so forth. Harbinger of spring is the first of the bunch, along with anemones and bloodroot. I think back to the first spring when I visited this collapsed cave system to see all of the spring wildflowers and I was hooked on the Ozarks' flora. Little did I know then the pleasure that would come from spring float season and the joy of finding morels in April. This past week I heard my first of the year Louisiana waterthrush on a streambank, so spring in earnest -not just a calendar date- is here. As warm weather descends, trees will leaf out to provide a canopy over the delicate spring wildflowers in these moist areas, only to give way to another 5 months of blooms of our long lived perennials.

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.