Orchid Valley Natural Area

This month’s destination for the WGNSS Natural History Photography Group was Orchid Valley Natural Area in Hawn State Park. This natural area is south of the main park and not normally open to the public, but we were granted permission to enter by the park administration. Our targets were several species of orchids and other rare plants that are known to occur in the area—showy orchis (Galearis spectabilis) being the one I hoped most to see.

Our group for the day (front to back): me, Lynne, David, Casey, Avery, James, Bill, and Rich (Chris behind tree at back).

There are no trails here—not even a place to park, as we squeezed our cars against the side of the road at a spot that appeared to provide good access. A bit of GPS-guided bushwhacking brought us to increasingly rough and sloping ground that ended up at the edge of a cliff overlooking one of the sandstone box canyons that this area is know for—down below was where we wanted to go. Wild azaleas lined the upper canyon edges with their stunning pink blossoms. We followed the canyon edge and found a way down, then circled back into the canyon to find a stunning waterfall, its sandstone walls dripping with mosses and ferns. We spent quite a bit of time here photographing the waterfall and surrounding area before eventually resuming the search for the orchids that we came to see.

Bill surveys a waterfall at the center of a sandstone box canyon.

The waterfall fell about 25 feet onto the sandstone rocks below, its splash creating perfect conditions for luxurious growth of mosses and ferns.

Mosses sending up their “stems” (actually setae), each holding up a capsule filled with spores.

Sadly, the orchids were not yet in bloom—not even close, another victim of the cold, late spring we’ve been experiencing. Casey, our group leader, did find some very small showy orchis leaves, and we saw some nice clumps of another native orchid, rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens), an evergreen orchid that blooms during late summer. We hiked up another drainage that led to another box canyon—lacking a waterfall but equally impressive, nonetheless—but found no orchids in bloom there, either. We did, however, see cinnamon ferns sending up their spike-like fertile fronds and aggregations of antlion larvae (a.k.a. “doodlebugs”) in the soil beneath the sandstone ledges.

Leaves of rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens).

Moss growth is luxuriant in the wet sandstone exposures inside the box canyons.

Sandstone ledge above a box canyon.

Pits of antlions, or “doodlebugs”, clustered in the soil beneath a sandstone ledge. Ants and other insects that fall into the pits are quickly dispatched by the sickle-shaped mandibles of the bug lying buried at the bottom of the pit.

You might think failure to find what we were looking for would result in a disappointing field trip—far from it! Time in the field with like-minded friends in a beautiful spot is always a pleasure, and when it comes to searching for rare plants (or insects, or whatever), failure is the norm—making success, when it does come, that much sweeter. There will be other chances to see showy orchis (perhaps in a couple of weeks).

© Ted C. MacRae 2019

How to be an “iPhone nature photographer”

My passion for insect macro-photography is well known, so it may come as a surprise to learn that I have, during the past year or so, also become an avid “iPhone photographer”—i.e., I actually use my iPhone for “real” photography and not just selfies or quick snapshots. This is not to say that an iPhone can do everything that a digital SLR camera can do, especially when one considers the resolution of and wealth of lens options available for the latter. Nevertheless, as the world’s best selling smart phone, the iPhone has, by way of its camera function, also become the world’s best selling camera, and even though it cannot match the power of a dSLR, there are certain situations and types of photos for which the iPhone is perfectly adapted. Having gained some level of proficiency in learning what the iPhone can and cannot do when it comes to photography, I thought I would offer this photo set of a hike I did today along the Courtois Section of the Ozark Trail as a primer for the types of photos at which iPhones excel, along with some tips and tricks I’ve learned to get the most of the iPhone’s capabilities.

An iPhone is basically a fully automated, wide-angle camera (although the user can control exposure to some extent by touching the screen at the desired point). As such, it excels at landscape and general nature photos, and its small-diameter lens also allows some use for “wide-angle macro.” iPhones do not do well in low light situations or take true macro photographs (although one can use a variety of “clip-on” lenses to achieve fairly decent macro-photographs of larger insects—I have not tried this myself). As a result, I tend to use the iPhone mostly in good light situations and break out the big camera when the lighting is more challenging or if I want to take “real” macrophotographs. As with all digital photographs, good post-processing is necessary for making iPhone photos look their best, and in general a more aggressive approach than is typical for dSLR photographs will be required. The photos that follow are intended not only to give a flavor of the day’s hike, but also demonstrate my photographic approach and provide tips on composition, exposure, and post-processing. If you have gained experience in iPhone photography and have additional tips and tricks that you would like to share, I would greatly appreciate hearing about them in the comments.

Courtois Creek - immediately at the start we had to make a decision whether we could ford the creek. It was obviously too deep in most places, and we almost turned back, but then saw a path that looked like it might be passable. With air temps of 22F, we stripped off our pants, boots, and socks, packed them in our backpacks, and waded through frigid water that reached just below our hips before reaching the other side. Rich brought a towel, so we were able to dry off before getting dressed again. The whole process took almost a full half-hour.

Courtois Creek – immediately at the start we had to make a decision whether we could ford the creek. It was obviously too deep in most places, and we almost turned back, but then saw a path that looked like it might be passable. With air temps of 22F, we stripped off our pants, boots, and socks, packed them in our backpacks, and waded through frigid water that reached just below our hips before reaching the other side. Rich brought a towel, so we were able to dry off before getting dressed again. The whole process took almost a full half-hour.

This photo was taken into the sun, which can easily result in a washed out sky. To avoid this, I minimized the amount of sky in the photo (which also allowed the ripples in the foreground to be included for a sense of motion) and then touched the screen on the sky to set the exposure. This resulted in a dark photo, but it preserved the rich colors which could then be brought out with aggressive brightening and increasing the contrast in Photoshop. A standard set of commands that I generally use for all iPhone photos (slightly increased saturation, sharpening, and de-speckling) produced the finished version.

Bluffs along Courtois Creek - massive bluffs along the other side of the creek sported fallend boulders the size of dump trucks.

Bluffs along Courtois Creek – massive bluffs along the other side of the creek sported fallen boulders the size of dump trucks.

Another photo taken in the direction of the sun, causing the shadowed side of the rock to turn out very dark. Again I touched the screen on the sky to preserve the blue color and then aggressively lightened in Photoshop. Aggressive brightening generally requires a more aggressive increase in contrast, followed by the standard command set mentioned for the first photo.

We were feeling good about our decision to ford the creek as we hiked below spectacular bluffs.

We were feeling good about our decision to ford the creek as we hiked below spectacular bluffs.

This photo required fairly minimal post-processing since it was shot away from the sun and, thus, had decent native exposure. The bluff face was a little dark and needed minor brightening, but as always I set the exposure in the brightest area of the photo and then post-corrected the dark areas (this is much easier than the opposite, i.e., darkening areas that are too bright, as such areas are often blown and cannot be fixed).

Ozark Trail blaze.

Ozark Trail blaze.

A very close-up shot of a trail blaze. The main watch out with such photos is to ensure the plane of the camera matches the subject precisely, otherwise distortion will cause elongation of one side (making the blaze a trapezoid rather than a rectangle). In post-processing I set the white point in levels by greatly magnifying the image and clicking on a very white part of the blaze to get a more natural looking white rather than the dirty gray that often results when shooting largely white subjects.

Blufftop view of Courtois Creek - from a vantage point several hundred feet above the creek we could look down on our crossing point. I have a fear of heights but nevertheless hung onto the treefall in front of me to inch out for a clear view.

Blufftop view of Courtois Creek – from a vantage point several hundred feet above the creek we could look down on our crossing point. I have a fear of heights but nevertheless hung onto the tree fall in front of me to inch out for a clear view.

This was another photo taken fairly towards the sun. I wanted just a thin band of sky to add a sense of scale to the downward-looking view, but with little sky the camera automatically wanted to expose for the darker foreground, thus blowing the sky. To prevent this, I tilted the camera up slightly to get more sky, touched the screen on the sky to set exposure, then tilted back down to the composition I wanted and took the shot. Post-processing involved aggressive brightening as described for the first two photos above.

Sapsucker damage on an old tree.

Sapsucker damage on an old tree.

I approached this tree from an angle facing the sun, so I simply waited until we passed it and could turn to place the sun behind me while shooting this tree. The trick is to get the right distance for a composition that doesn’t include too much wasted space at the foot of the tree or in its canopy, so this requires some walking back and forth until the right composition is achieved (I do not use the zoom function on the camera unless I have to because of the loss of resolution).

Close-up view of sapsucker damage. Obviously they have been using this tree for many years

Close-up view of sapsucker damage. Obviously they have been using this tree for many years

A closer view of the sapsucker damage—again this is mostly a compositional challenge, which I met by getting close enough to have this interesting “looking up” perspective but still far enough away to include the lowest ring of damage at the bottom of the photo and the highest at the top. Little post-processing other than the standard set was required for this sun-behind-me photograph.

Crystallifolia forms when water drawn from the soil by certain plants oozes out of the stem and contacts frigid air. Additional water pushes out the ice, then freezes itself, resulting in long, thin ribbons of ice that curl around themselves

Crystallofolia forms when water drawn from the soil by certain plants oozes out of the stem and contacts frigid air. Additional water pushes out the ice, then freezes itself, resulting in long, thin ribbons of ice that curl around themselves

For photographing crystallofolia and other small, ground-dwelling features, I like to turn the iPhone so that the lens is on the bottom edge to achieve a true ground-level perspective. The macro capabilities of the iPhone are limited, so in this case I used the zoom function (maybe about 1/3 to full zoom), centered the feature in the photo to get the best exposure and focus, and then did a little more cropping post-processing at the bottom of the photo to minimize the amount of blurred foreground. Again, a mostly white subject such as this tends to come out dull in the native photograph, so I enlarged the image greatly in Photoshop, opened Levels, clicked on set white point, and then clicked on the whitest portion of the subject that I could find to achieve a more ‘naturally’ white subject. It can take a few tries to find a spot in the image that doesn’t result in unnatural over-whitening of the subject—one must play around a bit to find it.

Crustose lichens abound on the dolomite bedrock exposures along the "Narrows" - a long, narrow ridge between the Courtois and Huzzah Creek Valleys.

Crustose lichens abound on the dolomite bedrock exposures along the “Narrows” – a long, narrow ridge between the Courtois and Huzzah Creek Valleys.

Again, I like to use a low perspective for ground features such as these lichen-encrusted rocks strewn across the forest floor. If you let the iPhone focus naturally, it tends to focus on subjects closer to the middle of the photo, so be sure to touch the screen on the foremost subject to set the focus in the foreground. Photos with contrasting colors such as the greens, browns, and blues in this one generally benefit from a little more aggressive increase in saturation (maybe 15-20%) than I normally use for iPhone photos (usually 5-10%).

Close-up view of crustose lichens.

Close-up view of crustose lichens.

A semi- wide-angle macro photograph that combines a lichen encrusted rock in the foreground with forest and sky in the background. The camera will automatically focus on the background, so touch the screen at the top of the foreground object to set focus. It also helps to pan back a little bit to include more in the frame than is desired, then crop a little in Photoshop as the lower part of the foreground object will tend to be out of focus unless it is a perfectly vertical surface (rare). In this photo I cropped out about 1/5 from the bottom and a corresponding amount on each side to maintain original aspect ratio.

More dolomite exposures with crustose lichens.

More dolomite exposures with crustose lichens.

Highly dimensional foreground objects add depth and perspective to low-angle shots. Again, it is better to get a little more in the photo than desired and the crop slightly afterwards than to get too close and not be able to do anything about it. Taking the native shot a little further back also ensures that the entire foreground object is in focus.

Fruticose lichens and moss intermingle in particularly moist spots.

Fruticose lichens and moss intermingle in particularly moist spots.

Like the close-up photo of the lichen-encrusted rock above, this photo of intermingled moss and fruticose lichens benefits from a low perspective with a high color contrast immediate background (fallen leaves) and blurred deep background (forest/sky) to add perspective. While the latter is not completely blurred, but it’s enough that it doesn’t detract from the main subject. The latter has maximal focus by backing up slightly for the shot and then cropping off the bottom out-of-focus portion in Photoshop. Again, I increased saturation a little more than usual to emphasize the value contrast.

Friend and Ozark Trail co-conspirator Rich Thoma looks out over the Huzzah Creek Valley.

Friend and Ozark Trail co-conspirator Rich Thoma looks out over the Huzzah Creek Valley.

The main challenge with this photo was the shadow cast over Rich by the trees behind him. Setting the exposure on him resulted in a washed out sky, which I really wanted to preserve because of the textured clouds. I also wanted to include a good portion of the sky to give the sense of looking out over a far-below valley, so I set the exposure for the sky. The resulting photo had a good sky, but Rich was hidden in a darkly shadowed area. I used lighten shadows in Photoshop to brighten Rich and the shadowed area where he is standing, and I used aggressively increased saturation to make the many different shades of brown in the rest of the photo pop out.

An ancient red-cedar snag hugs the bluff tops overlooking the Huzzah Creek Valley.

An ancient red-cedar snag hugs the bluff tops overlooking the Huzzah Creek Valley.

This photo had largely the same challenges and was dealt with in the same manner as the previous. The ancient red-cedar snag is an interesting and unusual subject, and I first tried a portrait orientation, but I decided I liked this landscape orientation better because of the ability to include living red-cedar to add a sense of time contrast.

Icicles form on an undercut below the bluff top.

Icicles form on an undercut below the bluff top.

Whenever I find icicles hanging from a rock overhang, I like to provide a more unusual perspective by getting behind the icicles and looking out onto the landscape. It can be hard to get the camera to focus on the icicles rather than the distant landscape—just keep touching them on the screen until it works. I used shadow lightening in Photoshop to brighten the dark rock surfaces in the foreground.

A cap of resistant dolomite lines the top of the Huzzah Creek Valley.

A cap of resistant dolomite lines the top of the Huzzah Creek Valley.

This was a difficult photograph—sun on the pines/cedars on the left overexposed them, while shadows on the naturally dark rock bluff surfaces left them underexposed. This photo was made fairly acceptable by using both “darken highlights” and “lighten shadows” (careful—too aggressive with these features results in unnatural-looking photos), followed by brightening and increasing the contrast, and finally by increasing the saturation. It’s still not a great photo, but sometimes you get what you get.

More icicles.

More icicles.

This larger set of icicles was nicely positioned in front of an interestingly sloped landscape with the sun coming from the left. Again, I got behind them, kept touching the screen on the icicles until the iPhone focused on them, and then adjusted the white point setting in Levels in Photoshop to really make them pop against the rich browns of the landscape behind.

Icicles were especially abundant in this section of the bluff tops.

Icicles were especially abundant in this section of the bluff tops.

A fairly easy shot due to the direction of the sun that required no more than the usual amount of post-processing. Note the perspective, which was to have the rock feature begin right at the bottom left corner of the photograph with some sky above it.

Despite subfreezing air temperatures, sunlight causes water to drip from overhanging icicles, causing ice stalagmites on the ground beneath.

Despite subfreezing air temperatures, sunlight causes water to drip from overhanging icicles, causing ice stalagmites on the ground beneath.

This photo had some dark areas in the foreground that were cropped out, and to emphasize the ice I was more aggressive post-processing with brightening and increasing the contrast. Again, as with most photos with a lot of white in the subject, I adjusted the white point in Photoshop Levels to reduce the “dinginess” that seems natural for ambient light iPhone photos.

Icicles glisten in the frigid sunlight.

Icicles glisten in the frigid sunlight.

In this case, the sun glistening on the icicles and a deep recess behind them provided a natural contrast that I further emphasized in post-processing, along with brightening and setting white point. The icicles suffer from distortion due to my low angle (I’m not that tall!), which I tried to fix with Photoshop’s distort feature but wasn’t satisfied with the result.

Close-up of ice stalagmites, revealing the twigs and petioles around which they have formed.

Close-up of ice stalagmites, revealing the twigs and petioles around which they have formed.

The approach with this photo was very much like that used for the close-ups of the lichen-encrusted rocks and intermingled lichens/moss photos—i.e., I backed up a bit to include more foreground than I wanted (which will be blurred at the bottom after setting the focus point on one of the stalagmites) and then cropped it out in post-processing. White subject = setting white point and using more aggressive brightening and contrast.

 Ted MacRae Yesterday ·  Rock, ice, and sunlight converge along the bluff tops


Rock, ice, and sunlight converge along the bluff tops

Again, the formation starts at the lower corner, and in this case the foreground (the right side) also contains an interesting clump of icicles. With the sun behind me, little was required to assure proper exposure, and only normal post-processing was required.

Moss with fruiting structures on a fallen log.

Moss with fruiting structures on a fallen log.

This moss on a fallen log was actually one of the more difficult photographs I took. I took the photo at an angle so that the background fruiting structures would form a solid, blurred red horizon to add depth, but in doing this the iPhone didn’t know where I wanted to focus and kept choosing the background. To force it to “choose” the foreground fruiting structures, I tilted the camera down so that only the foreground was in the frame, touched the screen on the fruiting structures in the back part of the screen to set focus where I wanted, then tilted the screen back again to include the background fruiting structures distant blurred background for perspective. One must shoot quickly when doing this or the iPhone will automatically readjust its focus to the background. I’ve tried shots such as this with the sky in the background, but in my experience the iPhone cannot focus on very thin foreground objects with the sky in the background, and the difference in brightness between the background and foreground is especially difficult to correct. Like the other semi- wide-angle macro shots above, I used the zoom feature (slightly), included a little more in the photo than I wanted, and then cropped out the overly blurred bottom portion of the photo.

Mushrooms on a fallen log.

Mushrooms on a fallen log.

Here is a typical photograph that someone might take of these large, saucer-sized mushrooms on a fallen log. In addition to being a pedestrian view of such a subject, it seems that iPhones sometimes have difficulty registering the correct color for photos taken straight down to the ground. This photo required quite a bit of color correction, and I’m still not overly satisfied with the result.

"Bug's eye" view of mushrooms on a fallen log.

“Bug’s eye” view of mushrooms on a fallen log.

As an alternative, I suggest getting low to photograph subjects such as this. The iPhone, with its lens against one edge and screen view, is well-adapted to take such low-angle photos, resulting in a much more interesting photo than the typical “looking down” perspective exemplified above. Inclusion of a little bit of sky in the background also provided some nice color contrast, made easier by shooting away from the sun, which was further emphasized in post-processing by increasing the saturation. As with the other semi- wide-angle macro photographs, a little bit of cropping along the bottom (but do keep the original aspect ratio) also benefited the photograph.

Moss covering the rock exposures in a delightful valley leading up from the Huzzah Creek Valley indicate an abundance of moisture.

Moss covering the rock exposures in a delightful valley leading up from the Huzzah Creek Valley indicate an abundance of moisture.

Last, but not least, this photograph of shaded, heavily moss-laden rock outcroppings bordering a small waterfall needed to be shot very dark in order to avoid “blowing” the sky in the background. Simply pointing and shooting into the shade will cause the iPhone to correctly expose the rocks, but the sky will be blown rather than retaining its blue color. Like the first two photos, I composed the image, then touched the screen on the sky to reduce the exposure. Again, this resulted in a photo that was very dark in the foreground, but this was easily corrected by aggressive brightening, adding contrast, and increasing the saturation post-processing to achieve a nice mix of browns and greens while preserving the blue sky background. In forest shots such as this with a lot of vertical objects, pay attention to distortion while composing the photo to avoid having trees at the edge of the photo “bowing” inwards at their tops. Sometimes this can be avoided by minor adjustments to the tilt of the iPhone while taking the shot, but if your position in the landscape is such that camera tilt alone is not enough to prevent this without losing the desired composition then go ahead and shoot the desired composition and use the “distortion” tool in Photoshop to correct the distortion this works best if bowing is minor).

I hope you have enjoyed this iPhone nature photography tutorial. If you have additional ideas or suggestions please let me know, and also I would be glad to hear of any related subjects you would like me to cover.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Is there any question why these are called the Smoky Mountains?

Last week I attended the Entomological Society of America (ESA) meetings in Knoxville, Tennessee. It was my first ESA attendance in more than ten years, so I took full advantage of the opportunity by speaking at the insect macrophotography symposium, presenting a poster on my soybean insect research, and enjoying face-to-face conversations with an extraordinary number of colleagues—some of whom I had not seen since my last ESA meeting and many more for which this was my first opportunity to meet them in person. I admit to having grown a little complacent in recent years about the importance of regular personal contact in cultivating these relationships—my attendance at this year’s ESA reminded me of that fact, and I’ve renewed my commitment to make ESA attendance a priority in the coming years.

Of course, no meeting should be all work and no play, and for me the chance to sample the local natural or cultural history is an added benefit of meeting attendance. This year’s destination for such was a no-brainer—located less than an hour’s drive from Knoxville, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the largest federally protected area east of the Mississippi River. Straddling some of the highest peaks of one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges, the park has been designated an International Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations due to its rich biota.

One afternoon is not nearly enough time to even scratch the surface of the park’s 800 square miles, but it’s enough to get a taste of the diverse habitats they encompass and whet the appetite for further exploration. Highly recommended for those short on time is Clingman’s Dome—the park’s highest point at 6,643 ft. An observation tower allows spectacular vistas (provided the day has good visibility) of the surrounding mountains and the evergreen forests that cloak them. Unfortunately, the view has been marred in recent years by the accidental introduction of an exotic woolly adelgid (a relative of aphids) from Europe and its subsequent establishment on the forest’s Frazier firs. Dead trunks rise from the forest like tombstones—ghostly reminders of what has been lost. The starkness of the high elevation forest contrasts with the lush mixed hemlock forest that dominates the park’s lower elevations, and the 2.4-mile Alum Creek Trail provides an intimate experience with this rich forest and its thick understory of native rhododendron. I hope the following slide show imparts some essence of the experience, and larger versions of each photo can be seen by clicking on the thumbnails in the gallery that follows.

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Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Friday Flower: Red Buckeye

Beetles, spiders, and snakes were not the only delights that Rich and I saw as we hiked the lower stretch of the Ozark Trail’s Wappapello Section in early April.  Entering the rich, moist, east-facing slopes overlooking the Black River valley, the oaks and hickories were still in the early stages of bud break. A lush, green understory, however, spread out before us, punctuated by the striking inflorescences of red buckeye, Aesculus pavia (family Hippocastanaceae). Among the first trees to bloom in spring, red buckeye is unmistakable in the field due to its red flowers and palmately divided leaves.

Red buckeye is native to the southeastern U.S., just reaching Missouri in the southeastern Ozarks (though cultivated further north). This makes it less well-known than the more widely distributed Ohio buckeye, Aesculus glabra (absent only from the southeastern lowlands and northwestern corner of the state, and easily distinguished by its white inflorescences, larger size, and spreading growth habit).  Like that species, the seeds and young foliage especially are poisonous if eaten due to glycosidic alkaloids and saponins.  Native Americans roasted, peeled and mashed the nuts into a meal called “Hetuck.”

I first encountered this species in 2001 along Fox Creek in the White River Hills of extreme southwestern Missouri.  It was one of several species that I had selectively “cut” and left in situ for a season to allow infestation by wood boring beetles.  I retrieved the wood the following spring and reared five species of longhorned beetles (family Cerambycidae) from the dead branches, including Astyleiopus variegatus, Hyperplatys maculata, Leptostylus transversus, Lepturges angulatus, and the prize – the very uncommonly encountered Lepturges regularis. All of these represented new larval host records; however, it was not until after I published those records (MacRae and Rice 2007) that I realized the plant itself was not known by Steyermark (1963) to occur naturally outside of the southeastern Ozark Highlands.

Speaking of early spring flowers, many such delights can be found at Berry Go Round #27 which is now up at Mary Farmer’s A Neotropical Savanna. It’s not just spring ephemerals, however, as another Missouri blogger and I show that winter has it’s own botanical charms. Stop by and enjoy the feast!

REFERENCES:

MacRae, T. C. and M. E. Rice. 2007. Distributional and biological observations on North American Cerambycidae (Coleoptera). The Coleopterists Bulletin 61(2):227–263.

Steyermark, J. A. 1963. Flora of Missouri.  The Iowa State University Press, Ames, 1728 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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Taum Sauk Mountain – Missouri’s High Point

Although spring is now well underway in the middlin’ latitudes of Missouri, it was only a few short weeks ago that winter was still with us.  For my last winter hike of the season, I returned to perhaps my favorite stretch of my favorite trail in all of Missouri – the Mina Sauk portion of the Taum Sauk Trail on Taum Sauk Mountain.  Located in the rugged St. Francois Mountains (the “epicenter” of the Ozark Highlands), Taum Sauk Mountain is Missouri’s highest peak.  I say “peak” with a bit of reservation – at 1,772 feet it hardly compares with the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains or even the much mellower Appalachians (and certainly not with those of my beloved Sierra Nevada).  Nevertheless, unlike the remainder of the Ozark Highlands, the St. Francois Mountains are true mountains initially formed through a series of volcanic events occurring well over a billion years ago.  They, and the rest of the Ozark Highlands, have been shaped to their current form by repeated cycles of uplift and subsequent erosion.  

During their Precambrian prime, the St. Francois Mountains reached heights of 15,000 feet (the “ancient” Appalachians, in the meantime, were still just a twinkle in Mother Earth’s eye).  Rain and wind and the vastness of time have reduced them to nubs, leaving only the most ancient of volcanic rocks as testament to their former glory.  Although most of what is now the Ozark Highlands was inundated repeatedly later in the Palaeozoic (laying down the sediments that were then uplifted and “carved” to their current shape), the highest peaks of the St. Francois Mountains may be among the few areas in the United States never to have been completely submerged under those ancient seas.  Standing atop Taum Sauk Mountain, it is tempting to visualize today’s craggy terrain as a fossil of that ancient landscape – the peaks representing the former islands of rhyolite, their slopes barren and lifeless in stark contrast with the exploding diversity of bizarre life forms appearing in the tropical waters that surrounded them.

The sterile, volcanic rocks of the St. Francois Mountains support an abundance of open, rocky glades – especially on their peaks and southern and western slopes – that are home to a number of plants and animals more typically found in the tallgrass prairies further west.  Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) thrive in clumps between the large, pink boulders that are strewn across the landscape and which provide shelter and sunning spots for animals ranging from the charismatic eastern collared lizard (Crotaphytus collaris) to the smaller but no less beautiful splendid tiger beetle (Cicindela splendida).  The surrounding forest is historically an open woodland with a rich, herbaceous understory and widely-spaced, drought-tolerant trees such as shagbark hickory (Carya ovata), post oak (Quercus stellata), and blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica).  These woodlands and glades are a fire-mediated landscape dependent upon periodic burns to maintain their vegetative character.

A trail begins at “High Point”, marking the summit of Taum Sauk Mountain and the highest point in Missouri.  A granite slab next to the summit rock documents the elevation at 1,772.68 feet MSL (Mean Sea Level).  The Mina Sauk Falls Trail, a rugged three-mile loop that joins the Taum Sauk Section of the Ozark Trail, leads to the tallest wet-weather waterfall in Missouri, Mina Sauk Falls.  During periods of high water flow, water gushes over the edge and drops 132 feet over a series of rocky ledges.  Water was flowing lightly during my late winter visit; nevertheless, looking out from above the falls (see photo above) offers one of the most spectacular vistas available in Missouri.  A rather difficult hike down the side of the mountain to the bottom of the falls is also well worth the effort, although clear views of the entire falls are difficult to find in the dense, moist forest below (it was here that I photographed the spectacular Ozark Witch Hazel).

A second unique geological feature lies about a mile farther down the Ozark Trail – Devil’s Toll Gate.  The rocks stand 30 feet high on either side of this eight-foot-wide, 50-foot-long fissure.  The gap probably began as a vertical fracture in the rock that has been enlarged by subsequent weathering. Over time the fissure will continue to widen, as the rocks on either side lose height.

Returning to High Point at the end of the hike, I noticed that the summit was a little higher than when I started my hike – whether this was through additional uplift of the underlying mountain or a depositional event I cannot say.  Nevertheless, I estimated Missouri’s new highest elevation to be approximately 1,773.01 feet MSL!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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Up the Glacial Staircase

During last year’s visit to Lake Tahoe, we attempted to hike Eagle Falls Trail, one of Lake Tahoe’s most scenic and popular trails.  Beginning at the Hwy 89 trailhead above Emerald Bay, this trail climbs a dramatic ‘glacial staircase’ with steep, narrow gorges connecting a series of deep lakes and meadows.  Each of these lakes, and indeed Emerald Bay itself, was formed as a result of glaciers that carved Lake Tahoe’s granite shores until as recently as 10,000 years ago – leaving behind scars of incomparable beauty.  Eagle Lake perches atop one of these steps – only a short, one-mile hike up the trail but rising nearly 2,000 feet above the trailhead.  Summer hikers have trouble enough dealing with this elevation gain, but winter hikers – as we learned last year –  find it impossible without the assistance of snowshoes.  The first steep section just short of Upper Eagle Falls would prevent any further progress, leaving me with only a teasing view up the gorge and a commitment to try again on our next visit.

There was even more snow this year than last – a good 4-6′ it appeared, but our rented snowshoes made this irrelevant (even desirable), and the four of us began the arduous task of climbing the snow-laden slopes all the way up to Eagle Lake.  It was a family affair, so the pace was dictated by 10-yr old Madison, who got us to Eagle Lake – serenely beautiful and frozen solid – in a leisurely 1 hour 45 minutes.  The hike back down the gorge passed more quickly (almost too quickly) but provided spectacular views of Emerald Bay and Lake Tahoe below. Those of you with an interest in the geological history of Lake Tahoe may refer to my earlier posts, Lake Tahoe, California (Mar 2008) and Born of Glaciers (Mar 2009).  The rest of you may just enjoy these pretty pictures.

View of Upper Eagle Falls - it was here where our hike last year would end.

View back down the gorge from bridge over Upper Eagle Falls.

Looking back down at Emerald Bay from Eagle Falls Trail.

Further up the trail, one looks back upon this spectacular view of Jake's Peak.

Eagle lake lies at 8,500' elevation (frozen lake surface visible through trees left).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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Clubmoss along the Ozark Trail

It has been a long, hard winter – one of the toughest I can remember during my years here in Missouri in terms of amount and frequency of precipitation and persistent cold temperatures. Tough winters, however, are no deterrent to my favorite wintertime activity – hiking. I’ve mentioned several times the goal of my friend Rich and I to hike all 350 miles of the Ozark Trail.  We’re at ~250 miles now (more than 2/3 done), thanks to the two 10-mile stretches of the Wappapello Section that we did on the days after Thanksgiving and New Year’s. 

Hiking these trails is an opportunity to imagine the Ozark Highlands in their wild, pre-settlement state – expansive hardwood forests covering miles and miles of rugged up-and-down terrain.  Of course, try as I might to pretend otherwise, the Ozarks have changed, and evidence of man’s pervasive presence are everywhere.  Some are overt, such as this mass grave of domestic cattle, dumped by their former owner for others to worry about when disease prevented them from realizing their economic potential.  Others are much more subtle, but to the discriminating naturalist they are everywhere – even in the most pristine-looking of areas.  A cedar-choked glade here, it’s rich, tawny, native warm-season grasses pushed the margins and interspaces; a monotonous, stunted black oak forest there, sprigs of herbaceous plants giving a hint of the diverse understory just waiting for a fire to bring back the more open woodland it needs to thrive.  Settlement has brought with it not only direct impacts to the land, but also changes in its ecology and vegetational character.  Once a fire-mediated landscape with shifting mosaics of bald ridges, grassy woodlands, and riparian forests, a century of logging, grazing, and fire suppression have turned much of the Ozark Highlands into homogenous stands of oak with depauperate mid- and understories.

While loss of diversity has been the overwhelming trend in response to settlement, additions to the state’s flora are also being seen.  The Wappapello Section is the southeasternmost of all the Ozark Trail sections, lying almost entirely in Wayne County, and as we traversed the rugged terrain north to Sam A. Baker State Park, we encountered this most unusual of plants – a clubmoss.  Since they are vascular plants, clubmosses are not really moss (which are non-vascular).  Clubmosses are not flowering plants either, nor do they even produce seeds, reproducing instead by spores – just like ferns, horsetails, and other ‘primitive’ (sorry, Alex!) vascular plants.  Practicing botanists include them in a group known as “fern allies”, meaning that they are not ferns (ferns have multiple branching veins in their delicate fronds, while clubmosses have a single vein in their small, scale-like leaves), but they are somewhat like them.

This particular clubmoss belongs to the genus Lycopodium, or ground cedars – the name obviously derived from the resemblance of their foliage to various gymnospermous plants known as cedars (though completely unrelated) but growing very low to the ground. There are three species of Lycopodium in Missouri (Yatskievych 1999), all confined to the Ozark Highlands and all considered species of conservation concern due to their rarity in the state (Missouri Natural Heritage Program 2010).  Two of these species are highly restricted (designated S1 for “critically imperiled”), boreal species occurring only on moist sandstone bluffs in Ste. Genevieve County as Pleistocene relicts – holdovers from a time when glaciers advanced to within about 50 miles to the north and cool, wet conditions prevailed throughout the rest of the state.  The third species, shown here, is Lycopodium digitatum.  Although more widespread in the cool forests of the northeastern U.S. and Canada, it is apparently expanding its range and was first found in Missouri in 1993.  While still considered uncommon (and accordingly designated S2, or “imperiled”), its range has since expanded to a core of several southeastern Missouri Ozark counties that include Carter, Iron, Madison, Reynolds, and Wayne Counties (Doolen and Doolen 2008).  We found this colony at the base of a moist wooded slope amongst an invading stand of Juniperus virginiana (ironically, called “cedars” by local residents).

“Running ground cedar” has been used as a common name for L. digitatum, most likely due to its habit of spreading by rhizomes – or “runners” – along the soil surface.  From a distance, the spore-producing strobili stood out in bright yellow contrast to the dark glossy green foliage that carpeted the ground – itself in stark contrast with the surrounding brown leaf litter.  It is these club-like strobili from which the common name “clubmoss” is derived, and from a distance of 20 m away I knew instantly that this was something unusual and worthy of investigation.  Despite the gray November skies and cool temperatures, the strobili were actively shedding spores – clouds of yellow dust swirling briefly with each knock of the finger before dissapating into the air.

Hundreds of millions of years ago, the Carboniferous earth was covered with vast forests of giant clubmosses – extinct relatives of this species that soared to heights of one hundred feet. These giants eventually gave way to new kinds of plants – first the seed-bearing conifers, and later the flowering angiosperms. The giant clubmosses are gone, but their descendents have survived the vastness of time, represented today by these humble, diminutive forms – extant members of an ancient group hiding in the nooks and crannies of the modern flora. I don’t know whether the recent appearance of L. digitatum in the Ozark Highlands is a result of the anthropogenic changes brought upon the area in recent years, but given its ancient, relictual qualities, it is one change in the flora of Missouri that I do not mind.

REFERENCES:

Doolen, W. and C. Doolen.  2008.  Clubmoss wonders in southeast Missouri.  Perennis, Newsletter of the S.E. Missouri Native Plant Society 1(4):1–2.

Missouri Natural Heritage Program.  2010.  Missouri Species and Communities of Conservation Concern Checklist.  Missouri Department of Conservation, Jefferson City, Missouri, 53 pp.

Yatskievych, G. 1999. Steyermark’s Flora of Missouri, Volume 1. Missouri Department of Conservation, Jefferson City, 991 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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Hawn State Park – Winter Hiking at its Finest

Two weekends ago we received another wave in what has been an unusually frequent series of snow events. I’m sure my northern (and Patagonian) friends are not impressed, but at our middlin’ latitudes snow falls rather infrequently and rarely sticks around for long when it does. This winter has been different, with snowfall almost every week, it seems like, and temperatures that have remained cold enough to keep it around for awhile. While this latest snowfall measured only a modest 1-2 inches here in the St. Louis area, a 7-inch blanket (as measured by my hiking stick) fell in the Ozark Highlands just south of here. Coming as it did at the start of the weekend, I welcomed the opportunity to go for a hike — among my favorite wintertime activities — in a landscape that is rarely seen covered in deep, newly-fallen snow. My daughter Madison loves hiking as much as I do (even in deep snow), so the two of us headed off to perhaps my favorite of Missouri’s public areas, Hawn State Park.  I have long adored Hawn for its premier hiking, facinating geology, and unusual flora, and everytime I visit Hawn I find something new to love about it.  

Lamotte sandstone outcrops on the White Oaks Trail


Such was the case on this visit, when Madison and I decided to explore the White Oaks Trail, a newer trail that I had not yet hiked.  I was a little concered whether we would even be able to get to the park, as the road leading into it had only been partially plowed (and we had already seen one car off the road, causing me to reach down and switch on the 4-wheel drive).  Most of the park was snowed in, but we were able to reach the uppermost parking area, leaving our snow-covered trail-finding abilities as the last obstacle to overcome.  After studying the trail map and looking at different route options, I asked Madison if she wanted to hike 2 miles, 4 miles, or 6 miles.  She immediately blurted out “6 miles!”, so off we went.  I was disappointed to see that we were not the first persons to have the idea, as we entered the trail only to find two sets of footprints (one human, one canid) leading off in front of us.  It did, however, make following the trail easier, and in fact I’ve had enough experience finding trails through the Ozark Highlands that I never felt like I needed the footprints in front of us to point the direction.  

Madison next to the root wad of an 83-yr old wind-thrown oak tree.


The White Oaks Trail followed nicely up-and-down terrain through mature white oak (Querucs alba) (appropriately) upland forest dissected by small riparian valleys before settling into relatively mild terrain through monotonous black oak forest.  Just when I thought the trail wouldn’t match the splendor of Hawn’s Whispering Pines and Pickle Creek Trails, it wrapped around to the south at the far end and passed by a beautiful hoo-doo complex of Lamotte sandstone outcroppingss supporting majestic, widely-spaced, mature shortleaf pines (Pinus echinata).  The rock outcrops provided a perfect spot to break for lunch while looking out on the deep, snow-covered valley in front of us.  

More Lamotte sandstone exposures along Pickle Creek, Whispering Pines Trail.


After counting a cut, wind-thrown black oak (Quercus velutinus) and determining a lifespan of 83 years, we took a connector trail down to the Whispering Pines Trail where it ran alonside the incomparably beautiful Pickle Creek.  Our hope was to hike down to the igneous shut-ins, where hard, pink rhyolites channeled the creek’s clear, spring-fed waters through narrow chutes and miniature gorges.  Upstream from the shut-ins, Pickle Creek runs lazily through the softer Lamotte sandstones that overlay those ancient rhyolites, combining with the snow cover to create a scene as peaceful and serene as any I’ve ever witnessed.

Pickle Creek meanders lazily through Whispering Pines Wild Area.

  
Just above the shut-ins, Pickle Creek bends to the west, carving deeply into the soft sandstone.  The porous nature of the rock allows moisture to trickle through and between the strata from the hillside above, creating seep zones that weaken underlying layers and lead to their collapse.  The abundant moisture this winter and continuous cycles of daytime thawing and nighttime freezes have resulted in extraordinary ice formations along the bluff face and underneath the overhanging layers, the likes of which are rarely seen in our normally more open winters.  Compare the scene in the first photo below with that in the second, taken at almost exactly the same spot one year ago in February 2009.  

Icicle formations along Pickle Creek, Whispering Pines Trail.


Same place as above in February 2009.


Ice rarely forms over the small ponds and lakes that dot the Ozark Highlands, much less its creeks and other moving waters.   The scene below of Pickle Creek as it exits the sandstone gorge is a testament to the slowness of its movements and the unusually consistent cold temperatures experienced during the past several weeks.  Only a short distance downstream, however, these lazy waters reach the bottommost layers of the erodable sandstones and encounter the hard rhyolites below.  These half-a-billion year old layers of igneous rock are much more resistant to the wearing action of water, which rushes noisily through narrowly-carved chutes before fanning out in broad sheets over smooth, steep slopes below.  

Pickle Creek along Whispering Pines Trail.


Sadly, there would not be time to visit the shut-ins.  The short February day conspired with our snow-slowed pace to leave us with a too-low-sun by the time we reached the fork in the trail that led to the shut-ins, a mile in one direction, and our car, a mile in the other.  Although we (both) had thought to carry flashlights (just in case), the last thing I really wanted to do was find myself stumbling over snow-covered trails through the dark with my 10-yr old daughter. Even had we survived the nighttime winter woods, I might not have survived the inevitable maternal reaction to such an escapade.

Arriving back at White Oaks Trailhead with a few minutes to spare.


Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010  

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