Friday, March 30, 2012

Leaning Towards Learning To Lean

It was a lean year for skating on Carnegie Lake this past winter. Just in case anyone was tempted, the red flag has stood at the ready at the Harrison Street crossing. In coming years and decades, maybe the flag's meaning will be redefined as "No walking on the water."
It was a better winter for leaning, particularly if you're a river birch. One could postulate a competitive advantage for a tree that "learns" to lean deeply but not fall, given all the uncontested sunlight to be had out there over the water.
In addition to their classic posture next to rivers, river birches have an attractive, distinctive bark.

The DR Canal State Park crews have done their annual mowing of the wildflower meadows between the lake and the canal. The mowing does a pretty good job of imitating low-level natural fires that might once have swept through, clearing the previous year's growth and leaving the oaks with their thick bark undamaged.
The mowing is particularly beneficial for switchgrass (the light brown area in the foreground). Its persistent stems from last year, pictured in a previous post, would serve ecologically as fuel to carry a fire across a field, to give the flames something to lean into and keep going. Other native prairie grasses, like big and little bluestems and the more common Indian grass, have similar adaptations. But if no fire, or mowing crew, sweeps through over the winter, the dead stems work to the plant's disadvantage by shading the new year's growth.

For leaning as play, leaning as life, read Robert Frost's poem "Birches", about swinging the white birches of more northern forests.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Shadbush and the Shad Run

The fishermen at Princeton township's Pettoranello Gardens are at loose ends these days. Ever since someone stole their fishing rods, life just hasn't been the same. This time of year, I bet they're wondering if the shad have started their spring run up the Delaware River to spawn.
That's easy enough to tell, even if your island doesn't come with an internet connection. Just take a look around to see if the shadbush is in bloom.
Shadbush, also called serviceberry, is in the Amelanchier genus. Though native, they're hard to find around here in the wild. I cut a bunch of stems off this one before moving it to a sunnier spot in my backyard, and stuck them in water like one would do with forsythia. The berries are tasty, depending on the cultivar. The one in my yard is a wild, unbred variety purchased years back at Pinelands Nursery, a wholesaler 20 miles from Princeton. Maybe it will produce better berries in full sun.
The rainbows in the photos, by the way, are generated by our home's powerful solar array, which drives duel prisms capable of generating enough rainbows to supply 100 living rooms with good luck.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Westerly Road Church Teens Help the Habitat

It's now three years running that Robert Olszewski and the Westerly Road Church youth group have helped out at Mountain Lakes Preserve. This past Saturday, they helped remove invasive honeysuckle shrubs along the driveway,

leaving the native spicebush and blackhaw viburnums (tagged with blue tape) to prosper. The cut shrubs were stacked in piles for habitat.
One highlight was the discovery of a garter snake,

which was a good sport about being held,
and whose slithery charisma won over even those who were at first afraid.

Many thanks to Rob and the youth group for all their help. For writeups on their past workdays at Mountain Lakes, type "westerly" in the search box at the upper left of this website.

Three of us helped supervise: AeLin Compton, Andrew Thornton and myself.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Litter Turned Terrarium

Every once in awhile, a piece of litter turns into habitat. A partially broken bottle, though hazardous for the feet, can be a refuge for plants. This one formed a microhabitat for a sedge and a moss, perhaps by collecting and retaining rainwater in a way that adds just enough extra moisture for these species to survive.

Friday, March 23, 2012

April 14 Event: Walks Across Princeton

Whether you know and love Mountain Lakes, or have somehow managed to remain unaware of Princeton's "central park", Saturday April 14 would be a great time to visit.

The Friends of Princeton Open Space--the quiet nonprofit that has done so much to preserve and manage nature preserves in Princeton--will host a series of walks on April 14 to celebrate Princeton's natural areas.

Three guided walks of differing lengths will be offered, all of which plan to converge at Mountain Lakes House at 2pm for refreshments.

The event is free and all are welcome. To register or get more info, go to

To Identify Trees, Look Down

Long ago, when winters were winters, and codglings were young men, and I was being trained to teach shivering 6th graders about nature in the depths of a New Hampshire winter, one of my mentors told us that even at night, walking through the woods, it's possible to identify trees simply by the sound the wind makes overhead, blowing through the canopy.

A similar approach can be used during the day, walking through town. This has been the week of the red maple blossoms, dotting the sidewalks with red.

Before falling, they look like this.
A scattering of sweetgum balls on the ground tell you what you'll see overhead,

without having to crane your neck.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Vine That Ate an Observatory

 Down at the Princeton football stadium, apex predators seek to intimidate all who dare challenge the orange and black. When I first moved to Princeton, these felines had ivy growing in their torsos. The combination of teeth and foliage was probably intended to send a message of Ivy League fierceness, but the effect was a bit odd. Now, with ivy relegated to the ground, they look more lean and mean.

In the field next to the stadium, geese graze peacefully,
unfazed by the local dentition.
Visions of migrations long past dance in their heads as they feast on the turf. Surely their distant ancestors once filled the sky like constellations on a thousand mile journey. Now they puddle jump from field to field around town.

I heard once that the origin of the non-migratory geese was a government farm in New Jersey where they were raised to supply hunters with targets. Then, when the farm closed, the geese were released, having lost the habit of long-distance migration. This explanation, having long hidden out in the pre-google part of my brain, has in the process of being written down just now caught the attention of newer, post-google brain cells that immediately called for a search to check its validity. Turns out that at least part of the story may be true. According to a post by someone with Connecticut Audubon, a non-migratory subspecies was discovered in Missouri in 1962. Government breeding programs helped increase the population to better insure its survival, and then spread them all over the country. That last part may be where good intentions went wrong.

 Just down from the grazing geese, next to the parking lot for Jadwin Gym, stands another entity whose range has become limited. Because of light pollution, most any observatory hereabouts cannot journey very deep into the universe.

This one, the FitzRandolph Observatory, has by default gained a new purpose as substrate for what appear to be Virginia creeper vines,
whose stems and berries ornament the walls.
Judging from growth patterns, the dome hasn't been rotated in at least a year. The monthly observing nights the astronomy department holds for the public are now conducted elsewhere on campus.
Hopefully, the writing on the door is not a metaphor for the building's future, or our own for that matter, given what we're doing to our lonely oasis in a harsh, unforgiving universe.

A website offers a link to the Friends of FitzRandolph Observatory, which leads to a blank page. Either the future hasn't been written yet, or the writing is on the wall.

By coincidence, Princeton Future had a meeting this morning about repurposing various buildings in town, though university buildings weren't included. Another building, county-owned, that sits quietly growing vines is the Veblen House. It at least has a few of us friends trying to give it a new life.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Lesser Celandine Blooming, But Mostly Spreading

 I wish I could go back to the first time I saw this flower and could appreciate its beauty without being worried it would take over all of Princeton. At Pettoranello Gardens it grows like green pavement next to the paths, blooms beautifully, but is radically invasive. Since becoming established at Pettoranello Gardens, it has spread downstream and has now become established in floodplains at Mountain Lakes Preserve. It displaces native plants, is apparently inedible to wildlife, and though it's pretty for a couple weeks, the rest of the time it's busy making natural areas less supportive of plant diversity and wildlife.
 In a suburban yard, it first appears as a couple plants, with small, roundish, shiny leaves.
It displaces the grass over time, then dies back in late spring to leave bare spots in the lawn. Its many underground bulbules make it hard to eradicate by pulling.

Lesser Celandine has started to show up in my former home of Durham, NC, where I've been trying to help eradicate small populations before they spread downstream.

Planting the Shore

If St. Patrick's Day is the traditional day for planting peas, then March 8th must be the traditional date when rushes are planted next to a pond. The dredging of the upper Mountain Lake in Princeton left the shoreline bare. A fence effectively kept the geese from congregating, but didn't quite do the trick appearance-wise.

FOPOS board member Tim Patrick-Miller at some point realized that the solution was growing just downstream, where thousands of native rushes and sedges had sprouted in the drained lakebed of the lower lake. Clark Lennon and Tim are working with new FOPOS natural resources manager AeLin Compton to transplant the natives along the shoreline.

Soft rush (Juncas effusus) is a very tough native plant whose evergreen stems and vaselike shape give it an ornamental appearance once it's established.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Which Witch Hazel?

A witch hazel of Asian origin (probably a cross between Japanese and Chinese species) has been making its customary pitch on campus over the past couple weeks,
in varying shades of orange and red.
Here's the overall effect.

The native witch hazel, which typically grows on slopes near streams in Herrontown Woods, Mountain Lakes, Woodfield Reservation and elsewhere around Princeton, blooms in the fall. Last year's post on the subject can be found at

Friday, March 09, 2012

No Toil Backyard Composting

These photos are from several weeks ago, when Princeton was in the depths of winter, buried in one inch of snow. The brief episode of winterish weather was useful for visualizing the regular nature walks we take back to ye ol' compost pile,
which happens to be a repurposed rabbit hutch from the 1960s. Our neighbors bring their foodscraps over to add to decompositional festivities.

It's really pretty simple. Toss the vegetable scraps in a pile, allow lots of air in to keep the decomposition anaerobic and therefore odorless, don't bother to stir. A fence along the front keeps the dog out. I haven't seen anything visiting it other than crows now and then. Shrubs planted along the front screen it from view.

The enclosure is wide enough to have two piles--older and newer--so that mature compost can be accessed without having to dig through the undecomposed vegetables.

Great soil, no toil. Ruth Stout, who back in the 1950s wrote one of, or perhaps the, foundational text on minimal work gardening, "How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back", would be pleased.

Upcoming Talk on Hurricane Irene

Related to the previous post on the towpath, Jim Waltman of the StonyBrook/Millstone Watershed Assoc. will give a talk entitled "Lessons From Hurricane Irene," Wednesday, March 14 at 7:30pm at the Kingston Firehouse. More info at

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Repairing the Towpath and Nature Along the D-R Canal

For years, the towpath was a given, a high quality crushed-stone pedestrian and bicycle thoroughfare stretching more miles than most anyone has time to explore, up and down the DR Canal. That changed last August as the unprecedented flooding of Hurricane Irene--tearful after having been downgraded to a tropical storm--deposited a thick layer of silt over the trail. The gift of fertility, reminiscent of the ancient Nile, would have been more welcome if the valley's investment was in agriculture rather than transport.

I inquired last fall and was surprised to hear that there were no funds available for repair, and if and when they become available, the northern portion's washouts, up towards New Brunswick, would get the first attention. Some repair in the Princeton area, by the water authority rather than state parks, has taken place. The photo shows a patch job just up from Turning Basin Park.

I called Stephanie Fox at DR Canal State Park today, and was told that more extensive repairs are waiting on FEMA money from the federal government. In addition to trail damage, some of the park's historic buildings were also damaged in the flood. Though the crushed stone surface is still intact in most places underneath the mud, repair will involve bringing in additional stone. Cost for repairing just one mile of minimally damaged trail could run $10,000, so overall cost will likely be very high.

Near Harrison Street, where the nature trail branches off, the towpath is in relatively good shape, at least when it is dry. The trail loop was built by parks personnel after I "discovered" the meadow there where the land between Carnegie Lake and the towpath broadens out. At the time, the park crews were mowing the meadow weekly during the summer. When I pointed out that they were mowing not grass but a field of beautiful native wildflowers, they agreed to limit mowing to once a year in late winter. Everyone was a winner with this arrangement: less work, more habitat, more flowers.

In winter, at the trailhead, the switchgrass leaves are an attractive legacy of last year's growth.
Word is that the bluebirds have hung around all winter, it being so mild.
One reward of exploring the nature trail this time of year is an encounter with fragrant honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), whose small white flowers live up to their name. This is the one exotic bush honeysuckle species that I've never seen spreading into wild areas. A line of the shrubs remains from maybe 40 years ago when that ribbon of land between the canal and Carnegie Lake was carefully tended as part of the grand entryway into the university.

Each year, with no assistance other than annual mowing, the meadows have become richer with wildflowers like joe-pye-weed, ironweed, tall meadowrue and cutleaf coneflower. It seemed time to relax, sit back and enjoy the fruits of less labor.

But a trained eye will see in this very plain-looking photo a web of vines. Porcelainberry, a grape-like exotic vine that has covered forest edges at Princeton Battlefield with stifling kudzu-like curtains of growth, has been spreading down the canal corridor. A light infestation noticed a few years ago is now exploding, threatening to permanently overwhelm the wildflower meadows.

Park crews are busy elsewhere along the canal, dealing with invasive Japanese knotweed and hops. We'll have to see if there's anything that can be done this year.

In the meantime, there are sweetgum balls serving as natural tree ornaments next to the trail,
the resident geese, and, if one can negotiate with the geese for access to the shore,

trout to be caught.

Monday, March 05, 2012


The word is that the woodcocks are doing their mating flights at Rogers Refuge, and probably in meadows elsewhere in Princeton. Below is a link to some posts from previous years about the woodcock's aerial display at dusk.