Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Ants in the Pantry Come Back

Springtime, and life returns to the kitchen counter in the form of those tiny ants discussed at length in a post last year. Not content with stray crumbs and traces of spilled honey, they wander far and wide with impunity, across furniture, my computer screen or my glasses, as if aware I had long since given up trying to blot them out.

Fortunately, the endearingly named Source Kill Max poison that seems to work did not get lost over the winter, but came quickly to hand during what had been expected to be a long search. It comes in the form of a jell. Fipronil is the active ingredient, which according to Wikipedia disrupts chemical pathways in the insect's nervous system that don't exist in mammals. Though I saw only an ant or two visit the tiny dabs placed on bits of waxed paper in a couple out of the way spots on the counter, the ants have diminished in number. It also can be bought in trap form.

2016 update: Consult the package, but we've found it to be more effective to apply the gel directly on their pathway, as out of the way as possible, rather than on waxpaper. They eat it all up, so there's no residual.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Counting the Years on Pine and Spruce

A neighbor's white pine tree, likely killed by the delayed effects of a scorching drought a couple years ago, shows clearly the whorls of branches that mark each year's growth. Count the whorls to determine the tree's age.

The remains of this spruce tree, traumatized by Hurricane Sandy, show a similar but less distinct whorling of branches. Many people refer to spruce trees as "pines", but it's easy to tell them apart. A spruce has much shorter needles, and the white pine's needles come in groups of five (the same number as letters in the word "white").

Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Walk Through Herrontown Woods and the Princeton Ridge

By chance, my daughter and I both had the same idea at the same time--take a walk through Herrontown Woods. Must have been the call of a spring day that finally reached us late in the afternoon, deep in our suburban exile.

Sightings of a pileated woodpecker and a wild turkey awaited us as we headed down Snowden Lane, traffic squeezing by us as we negotiated the sections that still don't have a bike trail (a bit of a hint there to the Ministry of Bike Trail Construction).

A short hike up from the preserve's parking lot are the Veblen cottage and, through an opening in the fence, the Veblen House, where remnants of Elizabeth Veblen's many daffodils and a lone Kerria still bloom. The Veblens--Oswald being the famous visionary mathematician--donated the farmstead and Herrontown Woods to the county back in 1958. In retrospect, it appears to have been Princeton's first nature preserve, the seed from which the now preserved corridor of the Princeton Ridge grew.

A patch of mock orange blooms (update: I've since learned that this is actually an invasive shrub called jetbead!) not far from the Veblen farmstead. Wood anemones and Christmas ferns grow in profusion along the paths in some areas, testimony to the capacity of these rock-strewn slopes to keep the plow from erasing the land's memory. (2021 update: What looked like mock orange proved to be jetbead, a nonnative that has been showing up in various preserves around town.)

A little ways west of the farmstead, my daughter told me to stop and listen to the echo. Our shouts reverberated among the boulders to the count of four. In addition to having saved a rich flora, the boulders enrich the acoustics as well.

Trails have gotten more zig-zaggy since Hurricane Sandy. Reaching this blockade, we saw a young man approaching from the other side. With the creation of a Friends of Herrontown Woods in the back of my mind, I said hello, thinking a conversation might lead to recruiting him to help clear trails. Turned out he was training after a long week at the office for a Ninja Warrior contest, and was using the Herrontown Woods obstacle course to hone his reflexes. For him, the more challenging the trails, the better.

He made quick passage through this muddy stretch, making the long leap from stone to stone.

We chose a drier trail that led up to Princeton Community Village, across Bunn Drive from Hilltop Park. Bisecting this affordable housing is a section of the Transco Pipeline, whose proposed expansion has been causing some controversy. The pipeline carries natural gas, and an expanded pipeline would help whisk the nation's shale gas out of the ground and onto ships for export, which seems to undermine the notion of energy independence in the longterm.

Across Bunn Drive, behind the soccer field at Hilltop Park, Bob Hillier's Copperwood development is due to be completed later this fall, according to their sign.

It's a good example of clustering that allowed preservation of 17 wooded acres of this Princeton Ridge parcel. It's also a good example of how community activism, through a group called Save Princeton Ridge, can bring about a more environmentally sensitive development than had originally been planned.

As part of the agreement to build the development, this massive stormwater retention basin at the base of the hill, built originally for runoff from the Village, is being repaired.

Nature, too, had been at work building its own retention ponds, with some better at holding water than others. Though it's sad to see so many trees blown down by storms in recent years, these pools can be seen as one of the tree's parting gifts, providing a nursery for tadpoles in the spring, and a place where the wild turkey we heard, and then saw, might take a sip as it walks in its gallinaceous manner through the woods. A lumpier land more closely approximates what existed in America before the forests were cleared and the land plowed. Here's a link to other posts about adapting this sort of minipond concept to backyards.

In the recently preserved Ricciardi tract, across Bunn Drive from the new development, a pileated woodpecker swooped by me just twenty feet away. It landed on a nearby tree, pausing between short head-bobbing hops up and down the trunk to scrutinize the bark for signs of insects. Finding nothing, the bird then flew to another tree, where it repeated its survey routine before flying to another, and another. It's reassuring, somehow, to see that this Princeton Ridge forest's inventory of trees are being so thoroughly inspected, and by such a beautiful bird.

This monster white oak, with its characteristic blotchy bark, has sprawling limbs that suggest it dates back to an earlier, less forested era in Princeton, when trees were more solitary and could spread out.

High bush blueberries are scattered through the understory in the 35 acre All Saints Tract. Here, too, you can see how one of the many tributaries of Harry's Brook begins to form out of pools and rivulets, fed by seepage from the hill.

Not sure what's going on here. Affordable housing for the birds? There was no evidence of past use, and it looks like it would get hot in the summer if the sun reached it. The stringiness of the bark of the tree it's attached to says "Eastern red cedar"--more evidence of a less forested past.

Lush growth of skunk cabbage forms a green ribbon leading back into Herrontown Woods.

This is how twin white oaks fall--laying down an angle in a mathematician's forest. Just needs a couple more walls and a roof to make a cozy habitation, though there might be the problem of a wet basement.

Back at the parking lot, the kiosk erected some years back by the county gives no indication of the pleasures of Herrontown Woods. Something about human nature makes it easier to build kiosks and those wooden boxes for brochures, than to keep them filled.

Heading back on Snowden Lane towards home, a silverbell (Halesia sp.) was blooming, with a snowbell (Styrax sp.) across the street. Both are in the Storax family, and neither have I seen growing anywhere else in Princeton.
(Note, 4.28: Of course, as soon as I say such a thing, I notice a Halesia in full bloom on South Harrison Street, on the left before reaching Route 1. Hard to glance sideways while navigating a narrow 2-lane road.)

As the day's light waned on Franklin Ave., far from the rocks and echoes and wildflowers of Herrontown Woods, my vote for "Princeton's most graceful Forsythia" grows.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Chickens and Wildlife

Introduce poultry into your backyard, and you may find yourself starting to scan the treeline with something beyond mild curiosity. Chickens and ducks are just about the most edible pets you could ever own, as the local wildlife are well aware. Predators can come by land or by air, by night or by day.

Vigilance is key, as this Pekin duck well knows. Any time I see it tilt its head sideways, the better to train a keen eye on the sky above, I will follow its glance upward to find a hawk, vulture or plane passing over.

When our 12 year old finally talked us into getting chickens, and then ducks, I wondered how all the undomesticated nature we'd been cultivating in the backyard would react. Would the poultry intimidate the mourning doves that had hung out next to the minipond at various hours? Would the chickens chow down on beneficial insects as well as the ticks?

Though having these birds in the backyard may be reducing visits by wild birds, their presence has heightened our awareness of wildlife in other ways. Recently, noticing the Pekin duck training an eye skyward, we looked up to see the tiny speck of a hawk hovering high above. Suddenly, the hawk folded its wings and began a slanted, accelerating straight-line dive. As with lightening, we were relieved to see we weren't the targets. It disappeared into the trees several blocks over. None of this we would have seen if not for the duck's signal.

By Night
A year ago, we started with four chickens, and now have two. The first was lost during the one and only night we forgot to close them in the coop. It was very traumatic for my daughter, who had named all four and been giving them loving care. But she worked through the trauma and the sense of responsibility, and the next day was able to channel it into making a beautiful grave with the shape of a chicken fashioned out of bits of rock.

Raccoon or Fisher?
We thought a raccoon had likely done the deed, in part because I found the head of the chicken far from the body. But in ten years I've only seen one wayward raccoon in our yard, and my neighbor reported she had seen something that night that she thought moved more like a fisher than a raccoon. I associate fishers with large tracts of north woods, but an internet search yielded news of their return to New Jersey. They are large members of the weasel family and one of the few predators smart and agile enough to take on porcupines. Princeton's animal control officer, however, offered no encouragement to this speculation that fishers might be afoot in the area.

By Day
Having lost a chicken in the night, we thought they'd still be safe if allowed to run free in the yard by day. This illusion was shattered late in the fall, when lack of foliage had made the yard more exposed, by a Coopers hawk in a mid-afternoon attack. That, too, was traumatic, all the more so because it seemed to sentence the remaining chickens to perpetual confinement in the coop and a small fenced-in run. It didn't help to find a big red-tailed hawk perched fifteen feet above the coop one morning, patiently awaiting breakfast. Word had clearly gotten out.

Since then, however, we've slowly relaxed our vigilance and shifted back to letting them out during the day. A friend with chickens in Kingston said he decided that the happiness of his chickens exploring the yard is worth the risk of an attack, and he's never lost a chicken that way. We've gravitated towards that philosophy, despite an unnerving visit one day from a coopers hawk that brazenly perched on our fence, just forty feet from where we stood, to check out the scene. It flew away before I could take a photo, and hasn't come back.

A couple fish crows also took an interest for a day or two, lingering in the trees above, conversing, trying to make sense of our backyard poultry scene, seeming to look for an angle that would benefit them. Fish crows are the sort of crow that says "uh-uh" all summer, as if telling you that whatever idea you just had is a bunch of hooey.

A week later, still wishing for a photo of a Coopers Hawk, I saw one land on the Westminster Choir College driveway.

It was carrying a small bird, and posed long enough on the pavement for a bit of point-and-shoot documentation,

before flying off in the direction of the crossing guard.

By chance this photo caught the shift in perspective that comes from having chickens, from the urban environmentalist's cultivation and observation of a benign nature to more of a rural farmer's awareness of nature as both magnificent and threatening.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Will the Real Marsh Marigold Please Stand Up--a Confusion of Yellows

A lot of people call this flower "marsh marigold". It's not. Notice the leaves stay close to the ground, and the small flowers have many petals. This plant is actually Lesser Celandine, a pretty but highly invasive exotic plant that will spread across lawns and coat floodplains in what looks like green pavement. I found this one specimen in my yard, and because there was only one, I was able to dig it up, hopefully before any seeds were produced, put it in a plastic bag, and threw it in the trash, not the compost.

(Update: Most homeowners don't notice lesser celandine, also called fig buttercup or Ficaria verna, until there are too many to dig. Digging also requires getting every last tuber in the roots. Oftentimes, the only practical option is to use a targeted dose of herbicide. Though herbicides are demonized due to their overuse in agriculture, the selective use of low-toxicity herbicides is an important part of invasive species control, just as low-toxicity medicines are selectively used in medicine. I use a 2% wetland-safe version of glyphosate, which can be bought from companies other than Monsanto.)

The real marsh marigold, shown here, is a native with five-petaled flowers, stands more upright, and is so rare that I've only seen it growing wild once in my life. These particular plants are in my backyard, purchased from Pinelands Nursery in Columbus, NJ. I also planted some at the Princeton High School Ecolab Wetland that are in full bloom right now.

The flower and leaf of marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) are on the left, with lesser celandaine (Ranunculus ficaria) on the right.

Dandelions blooming now can make it harder to tell if you have lesser celandine in your yard.

Adding to the confusion of yellow this time of year is the Celandine Poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum), a native in the poppy family that was common in the University of Michigan arboretum, but seldom seen elsewhere. A friend in Princeton gave me some, and it has seeded into the flower bed of my backyard. Like the marsh marigold, its rareness in the field bears no relation to its willingness to grow when planted in the backyard.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Fill-a-Pot Sunchokes

Yet again I forgot to harvest the sunchokes sooner, but even though they've sprouted they seem worth the harvest.

And what a harvest it is. Because this beautiful, ten foot high native sunflower with tasty tubers spreads underground so aggressively, I planted it last year in large plastic tubs. The plants were unfazed by the confinement, and produced an incredible quantity of tubers,

which when separated from the dirt and hosed off still filled the tub a third full.

Some of the harvest was immediately sliced up, coated with olive oil, and roasted on a grill, garnering lots of positive response at the dinner table.

What started as two tubers--bought at the Whole Earth Center, planted in the tub and placed in a sunny spot--turned into a harvest of 75 tubers that will keep well in the frig. They can be eaten raw, with or without the skin, or cooked in various ways. Recipes are easy to find on the web.

Limb Shadow

Even deciduous trees cast significant shade in the winter, as this red oak shadow shows.

Kentucky Coffee trees--whose pods of coffee bean-sized seeds may have once catered to the culinary needs of now extinct megafauna--have a slimmer profile, due to their strategy of manufacturing very large leaves (3 feet long and 2 feet wide) rather than the more normal approach of growing lots of fine twigs to hold smaller leaves.

This species also loses its leaves sooner in the fall, and buds out later in the spring (in the photo, the Norway Maple on the left has already started to leaf out). The combination of this coarse twig structure and extended period of nakedness (thus the Latin name, Gymnocladus) make it a good candidate for planting on the south side of houses that use passive solar heating.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Giving Names to Clouds of Color

Spring can be seen as a slow-motion version of the Santa Claus-shaped lights a neighbor had this past December, which changed color every few seconds, cycling through seven or eight colors before beginning again. Each kind of plant advertises itself through color for a week or two before stepping back into the obscurity of the green chorus. This Magnolia (presumably "x soulangeana") at Westminster Choir College is busy proclaiming MAGNOLIA!! in the full-throated fashion of an operatic voice drifting across the lawn from a nearby practice room.

Other major color-producers in the area are this trio of forsythia, flowering quince and some exotic cherry.

Forsythia gets a bad rap sometimes, but at least it doesn't invade natural areas, and it can be more or less graceful according to how it is trimmed. I like the way it gives the two bins in this "Recycling Gothic" photo a sense of place.

More of an enjoyable challenge for naming, often while driving or biking through town, are the comparatively subtle clouds of color that drift through the spring season--early stirrings in a long dormant forest. Garlands of weeping willow weep for the downed trees in the hidden valley just up from Faculty Road.

Reminding all of their ongoing success at sprouting up in backyards, Norway maples make clouds of pea-green,

as if spring rains had caused the ample color of the crossing guards' new jackets to leach  into nearby trees.

Other clouds of subtle color--spicebush's yellow, red maple's red--greet us in spring with a pleasing and missed familiarity, like the schoolkid parents first met at daily elementary school pickups, but now seen only at an occasional middle school concert.

Even a lawn offers clouds of color, in this case a highly edible cloud of violet (Viola sp.) flowers.

Ash Trees In and Around Mexico City

Ash trees deserve more respect. Around Princeton, one sees so many unimpressive ones growing in crowded, second growth woods that it's easy to forget that they can rival the size of the largest oaks and tulip poplars. Princeton has a few impressive specimens, on campus and in front of the Nassau Club.

In the vicinity of Mexico City (this being a post that lingered in the draft folder after our family trip down there last month), the Mexican ash tree (Fraxinus uhdei) doesn't appear to have much competition from other stately species. Whether towering over a plaza in front of a church in Coyoacan,

or seeming to erupt out of a sea of concrete, they seem unfazed by the tread of humanity.

If the canopy is too far up to confirm their identity, there are usually some sprouts from the base showing the characteristic compound leaves and opposite branching.

In better cared for neighborhoods, the base of the trunks get adorned with Schefleras and other plants we otherwise encounter only in living rooms and atriums.

This one's shade was particularly appreciated as a place to rest, part way up the mountain that was at one time the largest pyramid in America, in Cholula, near Mexico City.

Near Cholula is a town called Tonantzintla, where I took the kids in search of the hillside where I spent a few treasured days as a boy, riding burros with my brother during one of my father's observing runs. The telescope is still there, though not much used due to the light pollution from Puebla, and I think this must be what's left of the hillside.

The observatory grounds protect more than a vestige of my childhood world. Under these trees we were surprised by a variety of birdsongs heard nowhere else on our trip. In the photo, a resident mourning dove takes flight.