First Bloodroot of the Year!

Putting close to 15 miles on the trails this glorious weekend, I was noticing just how delayed spring was this year compared with the past several.  Harbinger of Spring is about at its peak at the St. Louis latitude, and Spring Beauty and Cutleaf Toothwort are a few days to a week before their peak will be here.  But, it is coming.  I saw thousands of these plants pushing there way up through the leaf litter along with Dutchman’s Breeches (very cute little buds, I must say).  I finally tried the rhizome of the Toothwort today while on a hike at LaBarque Creek C.A. near Eureka.  A member of the mustard family, the Toothwort’s small, fleshy and crisp rhizome has a tooth-like appearance, hence its common name.  Another colloquial name associated with this plant is Pepper root, also in description of the rhizome.  I found the taste to have hints of horseradish and green onion, with a little peppery heat.  The perfect size and flavor makes me think it would be perfect in a variety of dishes, including stir-fry and salads.  But since it would require killing a lot of plants, I doubt I will make a habit of it.

As I was coming to the last mile or so of my hike today, I thought I would once again strike out on my first Bloodroot of the season.  But, just in time, I saw a single, fully-opened bloom a couple of feet from the creek.  This was the only subject I photographed all weekend, but it was still a grand couple days for a walk.

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“First Bloodroot of the Year!″

Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM, ISO 200,  f/22, 1/15 sec
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Mondays are for the Birds – White-Crowned Sparrow

Compared to it’s close relative in the Zonotrichia genus, the White-throated Sparrow, the White-crowned Sparrow is a bravado.  These guys, especially the juveniles like the one pictured here, are quite curious and bold.  They will readily fly to the tops of the vegetation they are hiding in to get a better look and are quite responsive to pishing.  I find White-throats to be cowardly in comparison and quite a bit more difficult to get a clear photograph or looks at.  Happy snowy Monday.

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“The Unstoppable Coppertop!”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF500mm f/4.5L USM lens, ISO 640,  f/5.6, 1/800 sec

A Hike Down Rocky Creek

I have been wanting to make the hike down Rocky Creek to its confluence with the Current since I read about the idea in Louis C. White’s Ozark Hideways.  This past Saturday, Steve and I were both aching to get on the trails, to be with nature on a beautiful late winter’s day.  This hike was high on the ever-growing list of potential day-hikes, so we decided that this was the day for this one.  As was the plan, we started at the Rocky Falls N.A. parking lot.  We found that the water level in Rocky Creek was a bit higher than we expected.  While this is fantastic if your goal is to get some nice flowing water shots, it can make for some wetter than desired hiking and stream crossing.  Although this stream is not officially in the St. Francois Mountains, the exposed red rhyolite reminds me of the scenery there to the north-east.  We would see three of the best shut-in areas to be found in the Missouri Ozarks, with Rocky Creek Falls being first.  This image was taken on a previous visit.

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“Rocky Creek Falls″

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM @ 23mm, ISO 100,  f/16, 1/4 sec

The first half mile or so of the hike is spent walking alongside the creek, past an impressive beaver-pond until this little side-spur hooks into the Ozark Trail.  A right turn leads to Stegall Mountain, one of the “higher” peaks in Missouri and Peck Ranch C.A.  We turned left to keep along with Rocky Creek and head ultimately to the Current River.  The OZT comes and goes from within sight of the stream.  When possible, Steve and I strayed from the trail and kept close to the stream.  About a half mile from the Hwy NN crossing, we came across the next series of major shut-ins, those at the base of Buzzard Mountain.  The photo below was made on a previous visit.

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“Buzzard Mountain Shut-Ins″

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM @ 22mm, ISO 250,  f/14, 1/20 sec

Continuing past these beautiful formations of rock vs. water we followed the stream.  It was difficult to make progress, as around every bend there were shelves of exposed, upraised porphyry.  These ~ 3.5 billion year old “benches” were perfect traps for lounging and loafing, snacking and passing the time philosophizing, all the while listening to the ever present sounds of the crystal-clear water fighting its endless battle downstream.  This image was made in between our breaks.

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“Another World″

Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, Sigma 15mm f/2.8 EX DG, ISO 100,  f/14, manual blend of two exposures

A mile or two past Buzzard Mountain we came across the third and last of the major shut-ins along Rocky Creek.  These shut-ins are at the base of Mill Mountain, and the Klepzig Mill can still be found here.  Somehow, after several visits I have still not photographed the mill structure.  Oh well, another excuse to return.  Below is a photo of the shut-ins made on a prior visit to the area.

 

“Mill Mountain Shut-Ins″

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM @ 24mm, ISO 250,  f/16, 1/25 sec

About here we left the OZT to continue east with the stream towards its rendezvous with the Current.  The vast majority of the course of the stream has a very shallow base; in most places it can be forded without wetting your knees.  Once in awhile, pools deep enough to swim in would come about.  These pools held some decent sized fish and looked quite inviting for a swim.  Near one of these we stopped for a bite, including some tuna sandwiches that Steve brought along.  At one point Steve missed his mouth and a chunk of tuna  landed in the water along a shallow shelf.  We watched to see if a fish would come along for a free bite.  No fish found this piece, but in a few minutes this guy, smelling the oils leaching from the fish presumably, came out of the depths to scavenge our waste.

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“Spothanded Crayfish″

Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM, ISO 400,  f/4, 1/60 sec

Did you know…? The Missouri Ozarks are home to 25 species of Crayfish, seven of which are found nowhere else.  The ancient geology of the Ozark region has created spatially isolated streams, supporting varied aquatic habitats based on bedrock and erosional composition.  This has enabled high speciation rates of crayfish and other aquatic and riparian animals.

The Spothanded Crayfish is known to have specific color and other morphological differences between populations in Missouri.  In the western populations, such as this one found in the Current River watershed, the species is greenish in color and contains the dark spots  on the base of the pincers, while populations in the eastern drainages of the Meramec and Black Rivers usually do not show the spots and have red or orange tinted pincers.

Read more about the Spothanded Crayfish or any other of Missouri’s Crayfish by checking out this wonderful guide: The Crayfishes of Missouri, by William Pflieger.

Another two or three miles of stream-side bushwhacking, trail and forest road hiking and we found ourselves at the confluence, the now flat and tranquil Rocky Creek dumping its waters into the Current River.  The hike back was quicker and partially under the cover of darkness.  A highlight of our return was very close looks of an American Woodcock that we heard wobbling  among the dry leaves near the trail.  A favorite of mine.

We finished the day by grabbing a couple of pies at Saso’s in nearby Ellington.  The pies were fine, but no homemade baklava was on hand… 😦

I’ll end with the late-afternoon view we had from the point of the confluence.  Rocky Creek is moving in from the right.  The sun was pushing its last of the day onto the hills and was partially obscured by rapidly-moving clouds.  This resulted in the dynamic light across the landscape on the opposite bank of the Current.  I decided to go with a bit of a pictorialist treatment, but I am not completely convinced it was the best direction to go.  I used the clarity slider in ACR RAW to give the image a softer, less defined appearance, hopefully bringing attention to the changing tones as well as to the calmness of the water, which is juxtaposed by the images made upstream that were placed earlier in this post.

Well, I hope this wasn’t boring, and perhaps makes you wish to witness some of these locations for yourself.  Until next time, make like a camper and go take a hike.

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“A Place in My Heart″

Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 96mm, ISO 125,  f/10, 1/13 sec

Location Spotlight: North America’s Most Endangered Ecosystem, Tallgrass Prairie – Part II

So, a week or two after the weekend trip that Steve and I made to SWMO Sarah told me she had a hankering to go on a bird/photo trip to the same area.  She didn’t have to ask me twice.  😉  We loaded up the N.E.V. even though we were getting reports that the world had ended the day prior due to a dumping of snow and ice.  Not really knowing what to expect, I shoveled enough of the ice and snow to back out of our driveway and hit the road.  We were expecting to travel the whole way doing 30 mph or so and we knew we might even be forced to turn back if the conditions were too dicey.  Well, I guess it goes to show how unused to driving in winter weather we have become in this state, because once we got outside StL County, the roads were perfect the entire trip!  We did make our way north for a stopover in KC for some BBQ before heading back home, and they did get a foot or more of that weird white stuff, but by the time we made it there on Sunday, the roads were in pretty fair shape.

Okay, enough about our life, get with the picture making and depressing conservation talk, right?  We arrived at PSP with about a half day’s worth of light remaining to do some birding from the car, watch the bison, shoot some landscapes and visit the visitor’s center.  Dana was there, but he seemed pretty busy so we didn’t stop to chat this time.  The park was beautiful!  They had obviously received more of the “freezing rain” type of precipitation (on the east side of the state it was mostly “sleet” and snow), as nearly all the vegetation was enveloped in ice.  The look of the prairie was captivating as I hope I recorded in some of these images.  The sky was partially cloudy and moving quickly, and every five minutes the lighting changed dramatically pulling the eye this way and that from our vantage point from top of one of the higher hills.  After throwing a handful of fruits, nuts, grains and grubs into my mouth, I put the gear together, jumped onto the hood of the car and made this image…

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“Welcome Back to Prairie State Park″

Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM @ 29mm, ISO 100,  f/16, manual blend of two exposures

Sunlight was bouncing around the ice-encased grasses and branches.  The light did very little to battle the frigid temperatures and cruel winds on this lookout.  Sarah shot this closeup of what the prairie looked like.  I can’t say for certain, but I think this made it a little more difficult for the Harriers, Shrikes and Kestrels to catch their rodent prey.

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“Mighty Mouse’s Fortress of Solitude″

Technical details: Panasonic DMC-FZ50 Camera, 28mm, ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/250 sec, by Sarah Duncan

Don’t think I forgot about the bison.  Although we could watch them from afar during this visit, they were not close enough to the roads to take any photos.  Here’s one from the previous trip.  This is far from an artistic or technically perfect shot.  But, shooting at dusk with a 500mm and getting something usable with 1/40 second is pretty nice.  The rig was on a tripod, there was almost no wind, I used “live-view” and a remote cord to release the shutter.

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“The Inquisitor”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF500mm f/4.5L USM lens, ISO 1250,  f/5.6, 1/40 sec

I’m still astounded by how much the bison will move in a day.  There isn’t a spot in the park that does not show signs of them.  Even though they were quite a distance away, the tracks we found in the snow declared they had been where we stood at least 12 hours previously.

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“The Forgotten Herd”

Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM @ 33mm, ISO 100,  f/16, 1/40 sec

I know what you’ll think about this next image.  “Oh my! That pathetic creature must have stood outside under 17F and 30 mph winds for too long.  It must have been a painful death, his face being all contorted in that death-mask.”  Nope.  That is me…smiling.  It’s true.  I’m not sure, maybe it’s too many years of corporate America taking their toll.  Perhaps it’s the self-imposed, lifetime ban on cigarettes, Ben and Jerry’s and pig’s feet, but this is apparently how I smile now.  I’ve tried this in front of the mirror a few times since I saw this, and I’ve decided I won’t be doing it any longer.

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 “Pathetic Creature″

Technical details: Panasonic DMC-FZ50 Camera, 50mm, ISO 400, f/8, 1/640 sec, by Sarah Duncan

One of the more abundant bird species we observed during our visits in the prairies was the Northern Harrier.  As pictured below, their method of hunting is to fly low over the grasslands while listening for their prey.  These birds have keen hearing and specially developed facial disks like those of owls that help amplify sounds by directing them towards the ear.

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“Icy Heavens”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF500mm f/4.5L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/6.3, 1/4000 sec

If I could do this, I wouldn’t have those crusty, woolen sleeves on these cold and windy days!  Look closely and you can see an example of something that plagues this herd.  Dana told us that they have a pretty bad time with conjunctivitis.  This has resulted in many of the animals having cataracts in one or both eyes as can be seen in this bull.  Good thing they have poor vision to start with?

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“Blind in One Eye, Can’t See Out the Other”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF500mm f/4.5L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/6.3, 1/640 sec

On our second day in SWMO, Sarah and I were dedicated to visiting a few prairies that we had not previously visited.  This was tough, because it meant leaving PSP.  But, we rose early and headed about 40 minutes north-east to the town of El Dorado Springs.  Our primary stops were two of the largest, eastern-most native tall-grass prairies – Taberville Prairie C.A. and Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie (Nature Conservancy and MO Dept of Conservation).  Because of the frigid temperatures, our hikes through these areas were limited and we spent most of our time birding from the car.  Wah’Kon-Tah, a term used by the Osage Indians to describe the “god-like” spiritual presence or life force that inhabits all things, was hilly and quite attractive.   A quick morning hike through a portion of Taberville resulted in very few birds, but many tracks were spotted, including coyote, in the fresh snow.

We also visited a couple of smaller prairies that were mere minutes away.  During a detour across snow and ice-covered farm roads to visit the backside of Monegaw Prairie C.A., we found our best bird of the day, a Loggerhead Shrike.  It was actively hunting while moving along a barbed-wire fence.

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“Loggerhead Shrike, February 2013”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF500mm f/4.5L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/5.6, 1/6400 sec

Another stop was the small, rectangular and down-right charming Schwartz Prairie.  This slice of prairie is owned and managed by the Missouri Prairie Foundation and is named for conservationists, Charles and Elizabeth Schwartz.  The Schwartzes worked directly towards prairie chicken conservation and were a fascinating couple.  Not only were they active conservationists, they were authors, film-makers and illustrators.  Libby and Charles were responsible for the superb field guide, Wild Mammals of Missouri, and Charles was the illustrator of Leopold’s landmark A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There.  I am looking forward to doing some more research on this couple and hopefully picking up some of their harder to find books and videos.  This photo of an Eastern Meadowlark was taken at Schwartz Prairie.

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“Prairie Land Ethic”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF500mm f/4.5L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/5.6, 1/1250 sec

So, that covers most of the highlights regarding the experiences and images I wanted to share from our recent prairie adventures.  A grand total of three short winter days are not nearly enough.  I am very much looking forward to future visits to the western side of the state, to witness these endangered habitats during the growing season.

“Whatever else prairie is—grass, sky, wind—it is most of all a paradigm of infinity, a clearing full of many things except boundaries, and its power comes from its apparent limitlessness; there is no such thing as a small prairie any more than there is a little ocean, and the consequence of both is this challenge: try to take yourself seriously out here, you bipedal plodder, you complacent cartoon.”

-William Least Heat-Moon-

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“Frozen Oceans of Grass”

Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM @ 37mm, ISO 100,  f/14, manual blend of two exposures

Shaw Nature Reserve – Photo of the Month

One of my first serious bird photos I made, showing a Red-bellied Woodpecker taking advantage of some Black Gum berries, was honored as March’s “Photo of the Month” by SNR.

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“Red-bellied Woodpecker”

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF70-200mm f/2.8L USM +1.4x @ 280mm, ISO 400,  f/6.7, 1/750 sec