Natural events, December 2015

The excessive rain in Missouri made national news in December, with flooding in St. Louis and along the Mississippi. We received more than ample rain here, though not as much as some. Temperatures averaged well above normal. Though south-bound Snow Geese typically start to fly over us in November, our first observed south-bound Snows this fall appeared on December 1. Yet on December 31, we saw a small flock of Snows heading north. Fortunately, contrary to the implications of the geese, the National Weather Service is forecasting much needed normal-to-below-normal temperatures for the coming weeks.

dec_natural_crop_growthGarlic is a fall-planted crop, but we don’t like to see the leaves actually poking up above the mulch until very late winter or early spring, say March. This year, though, the garlic, encouraged by warm soil, got a head start, as shown in the photo at left. This is not necessarily a good thing, as a cold snap can damage the leaves that have grown with the help of energy reserves from the planted clove. We’re uneasy about ahead-of-schedule garlic, as that played a role in the disastrous 2012 garlic crop, though those circumstances were very different, so we’ll have to wait and see how this plays out. As further evidence of the warm soil temperatures, we had cilantro volunteers germinating in the herb garden!
Rodents were also active in December. Loud squeaking on a day we were working in the orchard led us to these youngsters. They seemed a little chilly and slow moving, thus the photos. I also encountered multiple mouse nests outdoors and saw quite a number of adult mice during the month, though all scurried away long before I could think of getting a photo. Is the combination of good acorn crop and warm weather leading to a reproductive boom of these creatures? What will that mean for tick populations in spring? And are these also keeping our raptor populations active and well fed?dec_natural_ex-bird
The predatory action was also notable in December. By feather color, this appears to be an ex-Tufted Titmouse, and though we don’t know what killed it, we’d guess it was a raptor. Normally, Red-tailed Hawks and Accipiters (Cooper’s/Sharp-shinned Hawks) are active at Chert Hollow for a little while during spring & fall migration, but they typically clear out of our valley during the summer and winter, leaving resident Red-shouldered Hawks and Barred Owls to rule. We’ve come to greatly appreciate this pattern, as the birds with a year-round presence are good rodent eaters but are benign with respect to chickens. The Red-tails and Accipiters really enjoy chicken on their menu. We’re happy to see transients of their species during migration, but when they settle in and stay a while, they learn about our flock. We lost a hen mid-month, probably to a Cooper’s Hawk. Based on our observations of continued intense hawk activity, we’ve kept the chickens in the confines of their mobile coop, meaning they only get access to a little fresh ground at a time. Have the migratory raptors stuck around longer than usual as a result of the weather? Is it a direct result of the warmth? Is it a result of high rodent populations that too may be affected by warmth?   dec_natural_caterpillarsUnusually for December, we encountered live caterpillars (though slow moving). Left: unidentified. Right: Larvae of the Cabbage White Butterfly that I plucked off of a mess of fresh-harvested greens in the kitchen. We rarely are able to harvest unprotected fresh greens during the winter, but even in late December this year we harvested fresh growth from collards, kale, arugula, mustard, sorrel, chard, cilantro, parsley, and even broccoli, not to mention plenty of root veggies. Eating fresh greens in mid-winter is great, but what are the implication for pests? Colder winters don’t always result in fewer pests, but wouldn’t it be great to hit the pause button on active caterpillar growth for a while?

Speaking of active growth, check out these woody plants with green leaves in December. Perhaps not coincidentally, every one of these is an invasive, clockwise from top left: Multiflora Rose, Autumn Olive, Wintercreeper, non-native vining honeysuckle, and Bush Honeysuckle. Not pictured: Privet also had had green leaves during December. We’re used to the invasives leafing out earlier than most natives in spring, but this year they also collectively hung onto their leaves much deeper into the winter than native woody plants. Does this extended period of photosynthesis contribute to their rambunctious growth? And in a world with too much carbon in the atmosphere, should we be complaining about plants that are able to photosynthesize for more days out of the year than our natives? Before our native plant society membership is revoked, we will point out that we’re no keener than anyone else on having a landscape dominated by these characters. But having read Tao Orion’s thought provoking book, Beyond the War on Invasive Species, we’re trying to think more broadly about why certain invasives are thriving and how we can manage our landscape to keep them in check while otherwise promoting biodiviersity.

By the looks of it, the top-ranked invasive by biomass at Chert Hollow is Eastern Red Cedar. Reduction of this invasive native species has been a major goal of two invasive non-native hominids over the last decade. (That would be us.) And one hard-to-complain-about perk of the weather in December was that it was mostly delightful for the continuation of this goal. We made quite a lot of progress clearing some old fence lines of cedar, cutting firewood from low quality hardwoods, and filling deep gullies related to historic land mis-use with some of the logging debris. We also have nice stacks of trellis posts and fence posts, plus both hardwood and cedar branches prepped to chip for mulch. And we’ve also started making hugelkultur beds with some of the logging scraps that aren’t suited for other uses.

The rain this year has been good for one thing: watching geomorphology in action. The photo on the left shows the stream channel with a boulder that has been disassembled by this year’s high flows. This boulder was last shown in the July natural events post. At that time, the big piece of the boulder had rotated off of its base, as shown by the curved arrow. A smaller chuck had also fallen off the boulder, and that piece has now been washed downstream, as indicated by the straight arrow. Over the years, we’ve also watched as the outcrop in the background has had soil/debris slump down it in dry years, while wet years flush away the debris and leave a cutbank with nice exposures of bedrock shale and coal beds. The photo on the right shows a less desirable geomorphic feature, a knickpoint that has migrated rapidly along our driveway during the past year. That mini-waterfall is a headcut that is rapidly moving upstream with each runoff event, leaving a mini-canyon downstream. Until now, the mini-canyon has simply been enlarging the ditch along the driveway, but it is about to cross the road and make a real mess of the driveway if we don’t do something about it.

December was clearly dominated by worries about un-seasonal warmth and precipitation, but we still occasionally discovered something just plain interesting:

December is a good time to find birds’ nests, and this one stood out nicely on a tree at a pasture edge. The nest dangles from a forked tree branch and is attached to the branch with what appears to be silk from spiders’ webs. The nest is neatly lined with finer vegetation inside. Based on other online searches, this is probably a vireo nest, perhaps a White-eyed Vireo?

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