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.
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.
I’m rooted in the prairie four generations deep, and those brown hills make the spirit rise in me. It’s the land I do my dreaming in, the place where I’ve found peace. Can you tell me why it is I’m going to leave?
Ozark Bill has been most fortunate during the past few weeks. I have been able to visit some public prairie lands in south-western Missouri during two overnight trips. The first, and topic of this post, was a trip that Steve and I took to Prairie State Park, near Lamar, MO. We had planned on visiting a potential five prairie remnants, but we soon discovered that our 1.5 days was a bare minimum to get to know PSP, so that was as far as we got. A couple weeks later, Sarah and I made a similar trip. Back to PSP and as well we visited a few prairies in the El Dorado Springs neighborhood. That will be the subject of part two of this spotlight.
Did you know? As the title alludes, Missouri has less than 1% of its pre-European settlement 155 million acres of prairie remaining. Thanks to John Deere and his insidious prairie-busting invention, 99% of all tall-grass prairie was forever lost in less than 200 years of intensive agriculture. Most of the land encompassing the 3700 acres of what is now called Prairie State Park is composed of original tall-grass prairie. The reason it escaped the plow? For the same reason much of the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas – the top soil contains large quantities of rock, which made it too difficult to plow. Instead, ranchers have used these areas to graze domestic cattle. Since we also wiped the American Bison off the map, this was something of a benefit to this ecosystem, as the tall-grass prairie benefits from grazing and fire disturbances.
Okay, enough of the depressing legacy our glorious westward expansion. There must be something left to celebrate considering we were willing to spend nearly two thousand miles in the car. Yes there is, and I hope to show what I can of what there is still to find by taking a winter trip to Missouri’s remnant prairies.
“Betwixt & Between”
I can’t see a way of knowing the prairie without making multiple trips across the calendar. Each of the green months will have a totally different blooming forb (more than 800 species in total) composition; similarly, each month of the calendar will have a new wildlife mix as migration consistently shuffles bird species. The image of the bison above was named for the utterly fascinating behavior that these free-ranging animals demonstrated as Steve and I moved around the trails of PSP. Signs on the drive into the park kept us focused on the fact that these were in fact wild-animals with unpredictable tendencies and not to get too close to them. Well, this puzzled me, to say the least. So, we asked for clarification from the nice fellow named Dana Hoisington, the visitor’s center naturalist. He gave us the detail we were looking for: 100 yards. Okay, so while we where traversing the hills of the tall-grass, soaking up the breath-taking scenery and doing our best to find some interesting birds, we will gladly steer clear by maintaining the advised restriction from these one to two ton herbivores that can move at speeds up to 35 mph. If we must.
We left the visitor’s center no more than an hour of arriving at PSP, hiking up the hill of what looked to be a pleasant, long hike. In less than five minutes we came across two groups of the herd, both on opposite sides of the trail we were traversing. The larger group comprised nearly 40 animals, the smaller came to about 10-15. How aware they were! They watched us with what appeared to be great curiosity, never lowering their gaze. As we headed up the hill, in between the two groups, we noticed they were slowly moving towards us. Curious. They did not seem spooked, defensive or aggressive, so we decided to make our slow but steady progress up the hill, away from the visitor’s center. We quickly realized that we would probably not be able to make it between the two groups before their progression would result in the three of our groups “meeting up”. We decided to move back the way we came a bit, thinking that maybe the two groups were uncomfortable with the idea of being “split up” by two bipeds carrying too much optical equipment. Imagine our increasingly apparent consternation at the fact that the two groups were now both moving towards us, NOT towards each other! It seemed like someone forgot to tell the bison the 100 yard rule! We increased our pace back to the visitor’s center at the same time that Dana was climbing the hill to assist us! He told us this was very odd behavior that he had not observed before.
“Tons of Fun”
The shot above was taken right before we really decided it was time to retreat. They did not seem aggressive at all, but down right fascinated. It would have been an irresponsible experiment, for sure, but I would love to have known what would have happened if we stayed still and let them continue towards us. We eventually made our way around this coalesced herd and were able to get a nice walk through a good portion of the park. The real puzzling part of their behavior is that during other instances of walking towards similarly sized groups, they had a totally opposite reaction of running. Yes, running, galloping, I’m not sure the correct name, but wow. After observing this, the silent question each of us had about what would we do if these limber bulks decided to charge us became mostly academic. I do not believe there would be much that could have been done. Ideas did come up: raise arms and tripods over head and yell with deep voice, play matador and dodge at last minute, roll into ball and protect head…. After seeing these guys slowly trod between feeding stations at places like Lone Elk Park, I am still astonished at observing the speeds at which they can move! Next time I will need to remember to watch “Dances with Wolves” before I do this.
Being able to witness the sound and feeling of small numbers of these animals thundering across the hills makes one wonder what it would have been like to observe endless thousands doing so across the great plains 200 years ago. Shortly after spooking this group we came across the skeletal remains of two bison, minus the skulls. It was interesting to observe the elongated vertebrate, located in the hump, that help support the huge, muscular neck of these animals. An adult male bison’s head can weigh up to 500lbs, so it seems obvious the need for such support.
“Harris’s Sparrow, February 2013”
Harris’s Sparrow winter’s in a narrow band across the great plains and is rather common in western MO. We were able to spot what must have been near 50 around PSP during our visit. This was a new one for my bird species photograph list and a lifer for Steve. The animal pictured above is a juvenile and does not yet have the characteristics black mask of the adults.
When we thought of the birds we had a chance to find and photograph during this visit an obvious short list came to mind: Greater Prairie Chicken, Prairie Falcon, Merlin, Rough-legged Hawk, Short-Eared Owl, Harris’s Sparrow. For me, two species were at the top of that list, GPCH and PRFA. I thought that at this time of year and the relative scarcity that we would have less than a 2% chance of finding Prairie Chicken and a much smaller chance at making photographs.
With a statewide population that once was a million or more birds, the GPCH flock in Missouri is now an estimated 500 birds. The historical range of this species ran from the Atlantic coast, north to the lake states and well into central Canada, south into the Arkansas Ozarks and as far south as Texas. The current range is now mostly centered around the middle plains states, including the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas, and the species as a whole is estimated to be around 450K birds and considered vulnerable. The Atlantic coast race, known as the “Heath Hen” went extinct in 1932 and the TX coast race, “Attwater’s Prairie Chicken” is now known as the most critically endangered bird in the United States.
Great efforts are being put forth to help save Missouri’s GPCH flock; however, many believe it may likely be too little, too late. Hunting has been banned for nearly 100 years, so why the problems? Loss of habitat. Tall-grass prairie and similar ecosystems are what these birds require and they need a minimum of between 10,000 and 20,000 acres of unfragmented native prairie habitat. There are simply no contiguous tracks of private or public prairies in MO that will provide this kind of area needed. In addition, a series of well done investigations from Kansas State University discovered that most GPCH hens would avoid nesting or rearing young within 1/4 mile of power lines and trees and 1/3 of a mile from roads. Considering most prairie tracks in MO are less than 2500 acres and that most of these are cut with roads or interspersed with private farm or ranch lands, it is no wonder that the flock has continued to dwindle.
Not all hope is lost for the future of the GPCH in Missouri! Proper management of habitat is currently ongoing at the Nature Conservancy’s Dunn Ranch in north-west MO. Combined with the nearly 8000 acres of the nearby Neal Smith NWR across the boarder in Iowa, this mostly contiguous prairie stretch may keep the GPCH nesting in the Show-Me State for future generations to witness.
So, did we find the birds?
“Greater Prairie Chickens in Flight, February 2013”
Yes! Hiking through a rather nondescript section of the prairie, all of a sudden we flushed a couple of birds. As I mentioned earlier, I did not really expect that we would be fortunate enough to spot them during winter, so I tried to turn them into anything else. Quail, doves, anything but GPCH. As Steve and I talked it through and looked at my first batch of crappy images I was able to shoot off, it seemed more and more unlikely they could be anything but GPCH. As we closed within 100 yards or so we stopped to see if we could find them using the scope and my big camera lens. I felt our chances would be very slim here as well. What would the chances be of finding these birds that can camouflage so well in the prairie vegetation? In a relatively short time I was shocked to hear Stephen proclaim, “I think I found one!” This was a great job from someone not completely accustomed to using a scope for birding. I was able to find the bird in my camera and squeezed a few shots and discovered the bird was watching us! Can you find him in the photo below?
This cover’s some of the highlights and a few images made during our brief visit. I will continue to post images from this trip on Flickr and I will look forward to sharing stories and more photographs from the trip Sarah and I made back to this region a couple of weeks later. Much of the information I presented in this post and further reading can be found in these great publications:
Did you know? The Missouri program of The Nature Conservancy has protected nearly 150,000 acres of critically important natural habitat? Their science-based approach to choosing important and biologically diverse habitats combined with their ability to work with private individuals, governments, corporations and a variety of other organizations has enabled them to protect forests/woodlands, savannahs/prairies and freshwater habitats across our great state. Their annual update was released recently and in it are a few photographs I donated for it’s use. Please have a read to see what The Nature Conservancy has been up to in Missouri this past year. And please, do give some thought of making a charitable donation for your new-years plans.
Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM @ 40mm, ISO 100, f/14, 1/10 sec
Fire and Ice
by Robert Frost
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Will the world ultimately end in fire or ice, desire or hate? I don’t know, but a multitude of fascinating theories exist for the origin of life on earth. I’ve recently read an interesting theory that suggests ice-cold conditions were more conducive for the origin of the first complicated molecules. Although cold temperatures are a detriment to most life on earth, several potential problems are alleviated by this as well. An interesting read if you like. Pictured below is the main boil of water that is released from Big Spring located in the Missouri Ozarks
This post features one of my favorite places to visit and photograph in my beloved St. Francois Mountains. Black Mountain and these cascades that tumble down more than 400 vertical feet in a series of steps lie southwest of Fredericktown and can be found literally alongside Highway E. The waters run under a drainage pipe in the road and travel another few yards before dumping into the St. Francois River. I was first turned on to this place by a fantastic landscape photographer of the Missouri Ozarks named Mark Karpinski. I highly suggest looking him up and buying a bunch of his photographs for your walls. His images are the best I’ve seen of this region.
As I mentioned in previous posts, this “winter” brought out possibilities for photography that I would normally be taking advantage of in the warmer months. These images were taken in early February following a couple of rainy days. These cascades run out completely in dry times, so you must carefully plan a visit following rainy periods.
Before you make plans for a visit, listen to warning. There are no trails here – it is just bush-whacking up the slopes. Sometimes you will need to go up leaf-littered hills and sometimes you must climb hand and foot over rocks and the cascades. There are all sorts of risks here. The rocks are extremely slippery. I highly suggest the use of felt-bottomed shoes or waders and take all precautions against water and your camera equipment. You will get wet! In the growing season I have been to few places with as much or worse concentrations of poison ivy. If you visit in mid to late summer, cover yourself head to toe and then burn your clothes afterwards. And ticks! In early February I hadn’t given a thought to ticks. This day I received a tick bite and found another three on my pants. I learned my lesson to pay attention to the temperature and not the calendar.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have spent some great days on this mountain. I have visited on 50% chance of rain days and was able to spend a few hours of cloudy, but relatively rain free weather – perfect for this type of photography. If you are in shape and have the determination to make the hike to the top, the view of the St. Francis River valley below is sure worth it. Pack a picnic basket!
The titles of the images in this post I stole from the lyrics of a song called “Buried in Teeth” by Mariee Sioux. I can’s stop listening to this song or Mariee’s music in general lately. I realize this may be considered IP infringement, but I have trouble with titles and I also wanted to try and give her some props, so to speak.
Thanks for visiting the blog. You can find more of my photos from this location here. If you decide to make an excursion to this spot or anywhere else into the St. Francois Mountain region, please be careful, enjoy yourself, leave only footprints and take only photographs!
Hi everyone. Here is the last in my planned succession of image postings of Mina Sauk Falls of the Missouri Ozarks. This photograph may be my favorite of the day. The textures of the rock and the patterns of the lichen suggested to me that this would make a nice black and white. I added a light Orton effect to enhance these contrasts and bring out the highlights a bit more. The pool of water might be my favorite aspect of the image.
I had another great Saturday exploring and photographing in the Ozarks. We really had some magnificent lightning displays from thunderstorms that went through the region in the afternoon. I hope none of you had any damage or other worries from these storms. I started my day with an actual plan and had to make changes due to the weather. I started my day in the Labarque Creek Watershed, thinking the storms we had on Thursday may have filled the drainage creeks and there would potentially be lots of falls, cascades and other water features to shoot. I also realized that the spring ephemeral wild flowers would be really getting going. Well, the water flow was next to nothing. The rain from early in the week had either drained quickly or was not enough to get things flowing. The spring ephemerals were exactly what I expected. Spring beauty, rue anemone, Dutchman’s breeches, hounds tooth and blood root were all present in the thousands. I wish I had actually spent more time shooting these, but I had other plans as well.
My plan after Labarque was to head to the nearby Shaw Nature Reserve to photograph the early happenings of the Red-shouldered Hawk nest located there. I hauled all my photo equipment and my spotting scope and my chair and snacks, set up, had an opportunity to take a few shots when the rains came in. So, I packed up and started back home. I knew the weather would also interfere with my plan to photograph a local Great-horned Owl nest that I was planning on visiting in the late afternoon and evening. I went back home, ate dinner and checked weather.com. There looked to be a gap between 5:00PM and 7:00PM where the chance of rain was significantly lower. I suspected that the 0.5-1″ or so of rain we received this afternoon may be enough to really get the ephemeral drainage creeks of Labarque flowing. So, I packed up and headed back to Eureka, knowing it still might rain for another few hours and I may not even get out of the car. When I arrived, it was barely sprinkling so I put my rain gear on and covered my camera pack with its rain cover and with my hiking pole and trusty Tilley to keep my head dry, I started on the trail – anxious about the weather and quickly cover the mile or so to the features I most hoped would be filled with water. The situation was not perfect. It rained about half the time I was on the hike. I was able to pull the camera out and do some shooting, but the light was very low, even for shooting moving water! In a couple of brief deluges I carried myself and my gear to a small cave to wait it out. This was one of the most memorable hikes of my life. The light, sky, fog water and life all around me seemed to be changing by the minute. At least half a dozen frog species were singing and the Eastern Towhees were constantly telling me to “Drink your Tee!”. I heard the ever-vocal Red-shouldered Hawks and the hoots of Barred and Great-horned Owls.
Finally, when the light was so low I couldn’t get anything shorter than a 30 second exposure, I headed back to the car. Upon reaching the top of one of the steep ridges I saw a spectacular display of warm colors as the sun was able to break through a bit near the horizon and juxtapose itself with the cumulonimbus clouds and associated displays of lightning.
I apologize if this is boring any readers, but I am using this blog as a journal in as much as anything else. I haven’t really looked at any of the photos I took today. Hopefully the images will be close to what I hope they can be. If not, I will always be looking forward to the next hike in the Missouri Ozarks.
Near the top of Taum Sauk these cascades were very appealing but somewhat difficult to shoot as the sun began to creep in. Ice covering the rocks was still an issue and I carefully moved along a ledge to get close to this pretty little slide. Being able to rest a bit in the sunshine and eat some cocoa-covered almonds and have some coffee while listening to the falls was great after spending the previous hour or two on the shadow side of the mountain in the cold and mist.
Here we have one of the mid-tier drops of Mina Sauk. This one falls about 20 feet and on this morning the temperature was just cold enough to freeze the mist of the falls on whatever it landed upon. It was a real challenge keeping the front of the lens free of freezing drops. The icy rock surfaces were also quite a challenge of foot near any of the falls. I really grew to appreciate the different colors and tones in the rocks here during this trip. With no greenery of warmer months or warm colors of autumn the purples, pinks and various other hues that these granites and their lichen passengers exhibit was something to focus on.
So how did Mina Sauk and her father mountain, Taum Sauk, get their names? I am currently looking for an original and direct source for the telling of the legend of Mina Sauk. Here are a few paragraphs collected from the web that were originally published by the Kansas City Star:
The Legend of Taum Sauk Mountain ~ A Native American “Romeo and Juliet” story as told to John Russell, from the Kansas City Star, by “Old Uncle Jim Connelly” back in 1953, the summer after the park became accessible by automobile to the public. Uncle Jim, an ex-railroad worker, who for many years ran a service station and tourist court from his home near Ironton, knew a host of stories and Indian legends tied up with the mountain.
“Uncle Jim’s favorite story probably is one about Taum Sauk, the Piankashaw Indian chieftain after whom the mountain is named, and his daughter, Mina Sauk, for whom the beautiful waterfall on the northwestern slope of the mountain is named.
“Long before the white man came here,” Uncle Jim relates, “this land of flowers, now called the Arcadia Valley, was the hunting grounds of the Piankashaw Indians. The Piankashaws had a famous chieftain, Sauk-Ton-Qua. Because the name was hard for the white man to pronounce, he was later call Taum Sauk.”
“Taum Sauk was wise and although the Piankashaws were not as large a tribe as the Cherokees or Osages, he was able to hold his territory against their invasions. The Piankashaws lived in comparative peace in and around the Arcadia Valley, where they hunted and fished and raised a little corn in the summertime. In the winter they would move to the limestone bluff shelters along the Mississippi river and stay there until warm weather.”
“Taum Sauk’s beautiful daughter, Mina Sauk, was greatly desired by all the young warriors in the tribe. However, Mina Sauk met a young Osage warrior in the woods and lost her heart to him.”
“For a long time he wooed her secretly, but one day she was discovered in the arms of the young Osage. The young warrior was captured and taken before the chieftain. He was tried and condemned to death.”
“He was executed on the slopes of Taum Sauk Mountain, where a great porphyry outcrop form an escarpment overlooking Taum Sauk creek and facing Wildcat mountain. The young warrior was tossed from the parapet down a succession of benches on the mountainside, thrown from bench to bench with the spears of warriors. He fell bleeding and dying in the valley below.”
“The grief-stricken maiden was restrained by the tribal women from interfering with the execution. But at the fatal moment, she broke loose from her captors and threw herself to death on the same benches.”
“The old Indian legend says that this displeased the great spirit, and that the earth trembled and shook, and the mountain cracked. Then a stream of water poured forth and flowed down the rock benches, washing away the blood.”
“The place is still known as the Mina Sauk falls and along the edges of the rivulet, even today, there grow little flowers with crimson blossoms which the Indians believed got their color from this ancient tragedy.”
-I really like this story and think it could be something special if it were fleshed out more fully. I find it hard to believe that someone like Longfellow never picked this one up and turned it into a classic. But, I guess this part of the country has never had too many literary classicists. Maybe Woodrell can pick this up and give it a modern Ozark face. Someone should suggest this to him.
According to weather scientists, yeah those experts so closely related to our news meteorologists, the jet stream and the current “positive oscillation” is to blame for much of the continental United States lack of anything resembling winter this year. The problem is that the jet-stream is in a negative phase, or dropping southerly in places like Alaska, much of Europe and Russia. While where we reside, here in the Ozarks for example, the jet-stream is far to the north, allowing warmer air fronts to reside across the country. Those places I just mentioned are getting lots of winter with lots of that white stuff we saw on holiday cards and gift wrap about a month ago, while we are in a sort of limbo between autumn and spring.
The reason I bring this up is that, as I mentioned in a previous post, there is a lack of typical winter photography opportunities this year. The past few outings I have been making my subjects more typical of what I would normally shoot during the warmer months. During a nice, leisurely and of course, warm hike yesterday looking for one of the harder to find shut-ins along a creek in the Courtois Hills I found a patch of short trees that were loaded with lichen. In these mild and wet times that we’ve been having (normally seen in spring and fall), the lichen appear to be thriving.
Lichen, a fusion of two normally separate living taxa – a fungus and an algae – are a treasure of diversity, harbingers of the state of the environment in which they are found, beautiful and are still not well appreciated or celebrated by the common public. Experts in lichen taxonomy use many characteristics in concluding the correct identification of these fascinating life forms. The largest primary groupings to consider in determining what lichen you are dealing with is to determine is whether the lichen is foliose – flat and leaf life-like with lobed margins, fruticose – branched and stem-like in appearance, or crustose – crusty, splotchy, almost stain-like. Following this generalization, the expert then goes into more specific characteristics in determining the identification. Is the lichen corticolous (lives in trees), or is it saxicolous (lives on rocks)? The expert in lichen taxonomy will consider the upper and lower surfaces of the lichen body, the cilia and isidia (hair-like projections), the strong-hold structures that hold the lichen to its substrate, the apothecia and perithica (fruiting bodies), and similarly to the fungi, the actual chemistry of the lichen itself will hold clues to identification.
So what are the two lichens captured in the image above? These are my best guesses and I am far from an expert in lichen identification. The left-most lichen is the fruticose, bloody beard lichen – Usnea mutabulis. The other, ruffled lichen I cannot ID for sure. I should have collected some notes of it in the field. But, I have narrowed it down to either the salted ruffle lichen – Parmotrema crinitum or the cracked ruffle lichen – Rimelia reticulata. If you are someone who knows their lichen and can tell me what I have just through the information in this photograph, please let me know.
The Ozarks of southern Missouri are rich in lichen diversity and the Ozarks are home to several endangered lichen forms. If you tire of botanizing, birding, mushroom hunting or whatever else brings you out in the field, consider having a go at the lichens. They are a fascinating subject.
P.S. One of the last things I expected to happen in early February occurred to me yesterday. Leaving my first stopping point I found two ticks on my pants. I wasn’t too concerned. I sprayed the remainder of a can of deet spray on my pants and continued my Saturday adventures. Mistakenly I didn’t give myself a full check upon returning and did not find the tick that was feeding on me until this morning, at least 12 hours after the tick had probably attached itself. Now I get the fun of wondering if I’ll come down with some tick-borne illness over the next month. I believe this is still a relatively rare thing in Missouri, but still.