Monday, March 26, 2007

Woodcocks Near the Boardwalk

On NPR this past Wednesday, there was a moving radio essay about one of our harbingers of spring--the woodcock and its remarkable mating flights--so moving it motivated me to seek out an old field at dusk and sit waiting for the woodcocks to fly. Where in Princeton do woodcocks find a suitably open habitat for their amorous acrobatics?

My plan was to sit on the new boardwalk between Mountain Lakes and the Great Road, just up from Mountain Avenue, and wait for the magic hour. Seemed like every goose in Mercer County was heading across Coventry Farm on the way to the Mountain Lakes for the night, but finally I heard the nasal "peent" of three woodcocks, and saw one fly overhead.

To get to the boardwalk, park at the new Farmview Park and take the paved bikeway a few hundred feet down the Great Road to the opening in the gate where a grassy road heads eastward down the slope to the boardwalk. Or check out the low, grassy area next to the soccer field at Farmview Park. They might be there, too, and easier to get close to. The link for the NPR essay is below.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Habitat at Mountain Lakes

The contrast of late winter snow reveals otherwise hidden aspects of the Mountain Lakes Preserve. Seepage areas are common where water warmed by the ground emerges at the base of slopes. These seem to be a favorite hangout for woodcocks this time of year.

These stark forms reveal the ecological dilemma at Mountain Lakes. Invasive species + heavy deer browsing = marginalization of native species. The larger shrub to the left is multiflora rose. Deer don't like its thorns, so eat native species instead, like the diminutive silky dogwood to the right. You can see the way the dogwood has sent out lateral shoots in response to past browsing.

As the deer herd is brought back into ecological balance, native shrubs like silky dogwood and spicebush will make a comeback in the preserve, providing a more varied diet for pollinators and birds.

A walk down the main driveway leading into Mountain Lakes provides a dramatic view of how complete has become the domination of one exotic species--multiflora rose. Walls of thorns rise on either side of this snow-covered path, ready to punish any man, woman or beast wishing to explore beyond the beaten path.

With the help of a Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program grant from the USDA, the Friends of Princeton Open Space (FOPOS) will begin removing the multiflora rose and other exotic invasives, allowing suppressed native species a chance to grow. FOPOS is also beginning to propagate local native species from cuttings and seed to transform these thorny pathways into a showcase for native wildflowers. Volunteers are encouraged to join in this effort. For more information, contact me by email from the "About Me" section at the top of this blog.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Winter Aconite

One of the perks of buying an older home is what may pop up in the yard in the spring. Here are some winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis), a long-blooming bulb that spreads around. They're much easier to see since the English Ivy was pulled out.
As with a number of other exotic species, it can spread in the garden, but doesn't seem to make the leap into local nature preserves, where it would not be welcome.
Don't confuse it with Lesser Celandine, which has become a seriously invasive weed, carpeting lowlands of Princeton preserves. They are in the same plant family (buttercups), and have similar flowers that open in late winter, but the leaves of Lesser Celandine are round.

Going After the Ivy

Springtime in an ivy league town, and the warming breezes jog some deep impulse to take action. To live with English Ivy is to live in perpetual ambivalence. Pretty green leaves, low maintenance, but how long will the free world stand idly by as it spreads its insidious conformity? For me, it was the sight of spring bulbs struggling to rise through the smothering green wave that gave the needed extra motivation. A heavy rain had softened the soil, and there was still time to liberate the spring bulbs before they bloomed. The long period of preparatory procrastination had come to an end.

Below is a description of one approach, designed to give hope to beleagured gardeners everywhere. Wear gloves, long sleaves in case there's any poison ivy mixed in, and keep a pair of hand pruners in the back pocket. Remember, if persistence were the measure, you would be as David before Goliath. But the use of a shovel, applied with a mixture of finesse and strategic force, will send the green giant reeling back on its heals.

My first approach was to pull the thick mat of ivy back, like rolling up a carpet. The gloves are where my hands would be if I wasn't taking a break to get some photos for this blog. (Anyone remember Tom Lehrer's song, "I hold your hand in mine"?)
The hand pruners come in handy if some of the ivy stems don't pull out of the ground.
Note the clusters of bulbs being liberated from the forces of bullish conformity.

The above method, while effective, caused my lower back to strike up a sentimental conversation about past strains and such. Being somewhat more highly evolved than the ivy, I decided to use more brain and less pulling force, which led to the Reverse Shovel technique exemplified on your left. The pickax is only there because I didn't have anyone to hold the shovel up for the photo, so leave the pickax in the garage. Starting at the leading edge of the ivy, slip the shovel along the ground beneath the ivy, then raise the end of the shovel handle, Iwo Jima-like, using your shoulder to push it up. Any strands still connected to the ground can be pulled out or clipped off.

The ivy should come free of the ground as you push, as in the photo on the left. Rolling the ivy back on itself, you end up with a pile of ivy that can be left to smother itself until the next time you summon the motivation to push the green wave further back.

Followup was much less than I had expected. Surprisingly, not much ivy sprouts back up in the cleared area, and can be easily pulled.

This is what it looks like when you're done.

There are other methods. But this one worked for me on a sunny day in March.