Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Phantom Forest

The name is intriguing: The Phantom Forest Conservation Area. Is it a wooded area troubled with ghosts? Does it seem to be a forest, but when visited, it vanishes into thin air? I've been wanting to check it out since I first spotted the sign last spring, but road construction made it impossible to access, then school started, etc. Today I was nearby, and the temperature reached the low 60s.

I've been wanting to apply the techniques I've learned from Forest Forensics: A Field Guide to Reading the Forested Landscape, by Tom Wessels (2010). The title of the book is well chosen, because Wessels's expertise is deducing the the history of the land using evidence of human use (or lack thereof).  The book is organized as a dichotomous key.
1A. Is the land smooth and even? Go to 2A.
1B. Is the land not smooth and even? Go to 2B.
I'm just a beginner at these techniques, but here's a few things I found in the Phantom Forest Conservation Area:
The ground is not smooth and even. When live trees are blown down in storms, the base is pulled from the ground roots and all. As in the photo above, as cavity or "cradle" is left where the tree once stood. As the roots and trunk decay and the dirt falls away, a mound or "pillow" is left. This area is too uneven to have ever been plowed crop land, but neither is the forest old growth. The windblown trees are not decayed and there is no evidence of old, eroded pillows and cradles.
There are many double and multiple-trunked trees, which can be evidence of past logging. The main trunk was harvested, and sprouts—now mature trees—grew from the roots. Like almost every inch of Missouri, this site was probably logged in the first half of the 20th Century.

Barbed wire suggests that after logging, at least the downhill portion of this site was once a cow pasture. I don't know how to age the barbed wire, but the fence has been long abandoned.
The spreading limbs of the mature oaks also show that the tree grew in an open field, not shaded in a thick forest.
Next to an old, cement foundation, an abandoned tub is overrun by non-native winter creeper. Other non native plants such as yucca and white pine grow near the old home site. 
Above the old home, I came upon this plaque. I didn't expect to find the answer to the riddle of the name of the conservation area so easily. The mysterious Ray Moore was a Missourian. The Phantom strikes again!
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Earliest of Trees

Housman called the cherry, "The loveliest of trees." Well, the Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) may not be the loveliest, but it is one of the earliest bloomers. According to Don Kurz' Trees of Missouri, it may bloom as early as January in our state! It prefers moist soil and is common along creeks and streams. It is a prolific seeder, and the "whirlibird" seeds (samaras) find their way into urban yards, alleys, and vacant lots. Those early flowers are not showy, but nevertheless they're welcome, especially after the amount of snow and ice we've had in the midwest this year. They must be even more welcome to the hardy insects that venture out in the short winter thaw.

Silver Maple gets its name from the underside of the leaves, which shows white and pale green. When the wind whips these leaves, displaying that silvery underside, you know you're in for another summer cloudburst.  Limbs are likely to crash down to the yard during that storm since the wood is brittle. Ice storms take their toll too. After a limb splinters, the tree often develops heart rot. In a few years, screech owls or starlings might make a home in the cavity.

I've never heard of anyone tapping Silver Maples for sugar, but according to, although its sugar content is low, the syrup has been used to treat coughs and liver disease.

I snapped my photos of the maple blooms last weekend. Houseman said in A Shropshire Lad:
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung in snow.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Crossley ID Guide

Cape May Warbler in The Crossley ID Guide, p. 411 alongside Birds of America, plate 95
I got my copy of The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds this week. Lots of well-known bloggers and experts have reviewed it as well, which I have linked to below. I'm not qualified to debate whether a the photo for the 1st-winter Glaucous-winged Gull is adequately differentiates it from the 1st-winter Thayer's Gull. However, if the target audience for this book is the average birder who gets out into the field when the demands of work and family allow; an average birder who'd like to improve her birding skills, then I'm eminently qualified. A better question might be, given that there are already a half-dozen excellent field guides to birds of the US, is this new book useful to me? I answer, enthusiastically, yes!

You're not gonna get this book into the pocket of your birding vest—it's bigger than The Joy of Cooking. I own only one bird book that larger and heavier than The Crossley ID Guide: the reprint of the 1917 Birds of America I got for Christmas in 1965. Edited by T. Gilbert Pearson, with color plates by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, its dust jacket proclaims in all caps, "This is the perfect, permanent bird book for all ages." Did the publisher mean it was perfect for a 14-year old as well as a 41-year old? Stone Age as well as Bronze Age? Industrial as well as Digital?

Like Fuertes' published paintings in Birds of America, Richard Crossley's plates are large, showing the species shown in its typical habitat. Crossley is not a painter however, his color plates are composite photos. Numerous photos of the bird are set against a background of the typical habitat. In the foreground of the of the composition appear a few close-up photos of the bird, each in a different plumage. In many plates, the middle ground displays several images of the bird in flight. In the distance are proportionally small images of the same species. Crossely's purpose is to pack as much identification information about the species into one scene as he can; how it may appear in flight, at rest from the side, viewed from the front when feeding, in the distance where streaks seem to blend into a wash of color.

At first I found these scenes a bit like a backlot studio shot in an old movie—I was distracted by the background. The more I looked at the page however, the more the images appeared 3-dimensional. Crossley is not trying to depict field marks. He asks the reader to look over the complete image, focusing first on this bird, then that, putting those photos of variable plumages and postures into context. In Japanese films, the director often gives the audience a wider shot than we're used to with Hollywood movies; the viewer, not the director, decides what to look at within the frame. Crossley's approach is more Kurosawa than Corman.

It will take me a long time to go through this book, but I'll use one plate as an example of the role this book can play in your birding toolbox. When I first moved to Kirkwood in the 80s, I occasionally saw what I called "the mystery bird." Its wings were swept back like a gull, but the tail wasn't the right shape for a gull. Sometimes I'd see a distant bird with a leading edge so straight that it appeared to be headless. It's flight was so effortless and acrobatic, I thought it might be a falcon. All of these are shown in the tiny distance shots on page 239

Ruffed Grouse peers in from the dust jacket
to read the 1965 version of an interactive comment.

The fact that I can point you toward that page whether you own the book or not is another feature of this birding guide that Peterson and Pearson never dreamed of; it's interactive! I can try to soak it all the images on the printed page, but if I need more information, I can find it with a click on the website. The web version has labels, comments, and questions not included in the book. Of course, you can "like" it, make comments, or leave questions for the author on Facebook too. Adjusted for inflation, at $8.95, Birds of America was roughly 3 times the Amazon price of The Crossley ID Guide!

If you wrote about this book on the web and I haven't listed you below, I'd love it if you'd comment and give us the link!
10,000 Birds
The Bird Chaser and second post
Audubon Magazine
Monarch's Nature Blog
The Bird Booker Report
Sapsucker Woods (gift shop of Cornell U)
What Bird Forum

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Charismatic Megafauna

Black Bear photo by Ed Coyle Photography
Since the confirmed sighting of a mountain lion in St. Louis County, I've been thinking a lot about charismatic megafauna—or big, scary carnivores—depending on how close the animal is. Mike, from Slugyard, commented that he had never seen a mountain lion, then added that unsettling thought that he was sure that a mountain lion had seen him. He reminded me of something that I experienced. I've seen wolves and grizzly bears in Yellowstone, always from a vehicle. It's a different experience when you're on foot.
One summer my brother and I visited one of the most beautiful places on earth, Yosemite National Park. We couldn't stay long, and he wanted to sleep in, so that morning I decided to head down a trail by myself. I was anxious to see the giant trees, so I picked up my pace. As a jogged up the path, I stopped. About 50 feet ahead of me was a bear. The wind must have been blowing toward me, because he was unaware of my presence. He—or she—stood, grasping the trunk of a huge tree, tucking his head down. I should have been frightened, but something about the bear's posture was reassuring. He didn't seem like a vicious beast, waiting to pounce. He seemed to be hiding from something much more frightening than a bear.

Just then, three women appeared, walking side by side down the trail toward the bear and me. They were happily chatting and laughing as they passed the tree that concealed the bear. They walked on past me without a moment's lull in the conversation. The bear was still unaware that I was watching him, just as the women never suspected that they were watched. As they disappeared down the hill, the bear broke from his hiding place and loped away without a backward glance.

Black bears are quite variable in size in color. The bear I saw seemed to be an adult, but not a large one. According to Wikipedia, bears on the Pacific side of the US are smaller on average than those in the East. Like 91% of bears in Yosemite, his coat was cinnamon, just a bit lighter than the one in the above photo by Ed Coyle Photography, taken one June in Yosemite. Check out this pool of Flickr photos, The Yosemite Bear Project.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Facebook, Bloggers and Revolution 2.0

Revolution 2.0   photo by monasosh
In the past week, my blog statistics tell me that I've picked up a few readers in Egypt, so I'm taking a brief detour from your usual backyard subject to recognize the events of this day.  The story of this revolution and the way the people of Egypt used Facebook and other social media to help bring about change is truly amazing. In this photo, a young man hold up a sign in support of Wael Ghonim, the Google executive and Internet activist who was arrested and later released. This is just a brief message to say, Egypt, you have inspired us! We wish you peace in the coming weeks. The photo is by blogger monasosh.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Macaulay Library of Animal Sounds

Sapsucker Woods, Cornell University          photo by eflon
We were just settling in for the night. We had already tested the hammocks to see how far you could swing someone before she'd land with a thump. Our scout leaders were tucked into a cabin, farther down the hill. We were on our own. Suddenly, we heard the most hair-raising sounds! We had no idea what creature it was, but there would be no sleep that night.

I've wondered about those shrieks for a few short decades, and I think now I can identify the shrieker. After searching the Macaulay Library of Animal Sounds from Cornell University, I can say that we probably were hearing two wrangling raccoons, although there was more screaming than you hear in this recording. The Macaulay Library is, "The world's largest natural sound and video archive of animal behavior."

There are other sounds on my Website Wednesday featured site that are not conducive to sleep, like this Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, recorded in--of all places--Sapsucker Woods, Ithaca, New York. Another animal sound that scared the living daylights out of me was the snort of a white-tailed deer. Call me a wimpy kid if you must, but that snort can be spine-chilling!

You can select broad categories like arthropods, or fish, or search by common or scientific name. Notes are available giving details of the equipment used and sometimes the recordist or videographer. One recording I found is an 87 minute interview about amphibians held in Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge, a really fascinating place in southern Arizona. Frogs caterwaul in the background.

There's lots of video too, including this one of a beautiful mountain lion. The video was shot by Tim Barksdale, former St. Louisan and Webster Groves Nature Study Society member. Video and audio from this site is copyrighted, so I can't post it, but hopefully you'll use these links and enjoy them.

I was able to embed the mountain lion audio from the Missouri Dept. Conservation's article about the confirmed cougar sighting in Chesterfield (St. Louis County, MO), that I wrote about a few days ago. Click the play button below. If we had heard anything like this, we would never have camped again!

Courtesy of Missouri Dept. of Conservation.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Mountain Lion in Suburban St. Louis

At 2:30 AM, January 12, deep in the heart of the suburbs, a camera clicked. Triggered by heat and motion, the infrared flash fired taking 2 digital photos per second. Seeing the images must have been a shock. Here in St. Louis County, the most populated county in Missouri, a mountain lion had stepped within 10 feet of  the camera, leaving several glamour shots to tell the tale. 
Courtesy of Missouri Dept. of Conservation
This is the third confirmed report in the state since November 2010! The other two were in rural counties on the western edge of the state. Both border on the Missouri River. Garrett Jensen's camera trap is only about 2 miles from the Missouri R., but 200 miles or so east of the other sightings. The last confirmed sighting of a cougar in St. Louis County was in 1994. As I recall, that sighting was about 15 miles south and a bit west of this one, in an area much less developed. This sighting is in the high rent district: lovely homes, treated lawns, and fragments of good habitat here and there. 

Mountain lions, sometimes called cougars, prefer areas that offer plenty of deer and few humans. St. Louis County certainly has deer--too many for some homeowners. Hunting deer by humans with firearms is not a good idea in the suburbs, so deer populations are quite dense in some neighborhoods. According to The Wild Mammals of Missouri, by Charles and Elizabeth Schwartz, an adult cougar requires about 35 deer per year. In spite of the abundance of deer, the suburbs have too many hazards and too little cover for a large carnivore. The Missouri Department of Conservation's Jeff Beringer states, "To date, we have no evidence to suggest that a breeding population of mountain lions exists in Missouri." They believe that these animals are young males, dispersing from self-sustained populations in the Rocky Mountains--northern Nebraska and South Dakota being the closest.

Wild Mammals of Missouri, 2nd rev. ed., 2001, shows a map of the distribution of mountain lions that includes most of the southern half of Texas, almost all of Louisiana, and most of Arkansas, touching the Missouri border at Taney and Ozark counties. Comparing with other sources, this map seems outdated or overly optimistic. Mammals of North America, by Bowers, Bowers, and Kaufman, 2004, shows a very different range, including only the states of the far west, the Rio Grand Valley in Texas, and a tiny area of south Florida. The Florida panther, as that subspecies is called, has suffered from genetic problems brought on by its isolation from other populations. The Cougar Network, an organization interested in the sightings of mountain lions in their former range, has a detailed map showing established populations and confirmed sightings. Their map is similar to the one in the Kaufman guide.

I remember reading that Big Bend National Park in south Texas had no bears when the land was first made a national park. Later, bears dispersing from Mexico repopulated the park. Could the same thing happen with mountain lions following corridors of habitat outward from the Rocky Mountains? Do we value these beautiful animals enough to tolerate their presence?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Thunder Sleet and Snow

In the last 2 days, our area got hammered with 3 inches of sleet, accompanied by thunder, followed by freezing rain, then dusted with an inch or so of snow. A few minutes drive north, they got 12 inches of snow! Most businesses and schools are closed--even interstate highway 70 was closed till this morning.

I try to keep the pond flowing a bit. The pump is hanging in there, but sometimes I pour some hot water over the ice to open a hole. All day long there's a steady stream of Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows dropping in for a drink. The neighbor's cat hops over the fence every day too.
I'm a bit worried about the Carolina Wrens. Freezing rain is particularly hard on them. On the MObirds listserve, Bill Eddleman reminded us that after the hard winter of ’76-77 their population plunged.

Leaves of Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) are beautiful in snow. I would miss these if I followed the usual practice and chopped off my plants for the fall "cleanup."

One of my favorite garden tschotskes is this screech owl made with a copper float ball from a toilet tank. Normally, he teeters back and forth with the wind. We have wind today, but the poor wee thing is frozen solid.

Kokopelli is the god associated with agriculture, fertility, and music. How long till spring, Koko?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Website Wed: My Google Maps

View Young Conservation Area in a larger map
Google maps are already pretty good, why would I want to create my own map? Well, you might want to direct birders to the spot where you glimpsed a mysterious bird--was it a Snowy Owl or a partially-albino (leucistic) Barred Owl? Maybe you have a new location for the botany group to visit on their next field trip. There's a new location for the annual banquet--here. You can do all this with Google's "My Maps." (You need a free Google account if you don't already have one.)
Save to… Create a new map
The easiest way to do this is to do a search for an address, but you can also just enter a location, such as Hilda Young Conservation Area. When I typed in the name, I got a map with thumbtacks in 6 results for my "Hilda Young" search--none of them correct. But when I adjusted the slider on the left of the map to zoom out to a larger view, I saw the conservation area. With a click, a balloon pops up offering "Save to…" I chose "create a new map." Now I can edit my own balloon, even add links. Once saved, on top right is "Link." Here I copy the link to paste into an email or set a link on a web page. Use the embed code if you want to embed it into your website and allow people to interact with the map as I have above.

Your "My Maps" have many uses. Send your visiting college roommate an email or instant message telling them how to get to your house--not recommended in public messages on Facebook. Use the link in your organization's newsletter or web page for the next meeting or banquet. When you find a rare bird, make a Google map and put it in the birding forum or list serve. If you post nature photos on Flickr, Flickr has a similar map function.
Copy the link to share it in email, or embed code for a website
My favorite use is to put the link in a Google calendar event. The map that links to the "where" field in your calendar event is chosen by Google automatically. However, if more than one location has the same or similar name, Google may link to the wrong one. Instead of typing the name in "where," you enter latitude and longitude. I don't have a GPS system, so I just type in an address and get the coordinates at Then, in the field "Where," I put the numbers iTouchMap provided, followed by the place name in parentheses.