Monday, July 29, 2013

Searching for Echoes of the Carolina Parakeet

In the pampas of Argentina, where green-colored parakeets chatter and fly overhead in twos or threes,

and pigeons perch in trees rather than on buildings, it's easier to imagine what sights North America might have offered before the Carolina parakeet and the passenger pigeon went extinct in the early 20th century.

Argentina can seem a parallel universe, ecologically, suggesting that species in North and South America evolved from common ancestors, and now display a mix of similarities and differences. This bird, common in a suburban landscape an hour outside of Buenos Aires, does a good imitation of the Northern Mockingbird found in Princeton. It may be one of the southern mockingbirds shown in this link.

The ranges of close South American relatives of the Carolina parakeet, according to the Wikipedia writeup, don't extend down to the Argentine pampas. Nor did the Carolina parakeet build giant nests like the one seen in this Eucalyptus in the pampas. In fact, it's hypothesized that one of the many and varied factors causing the Carolina parakeet's demise may have been the introduction of the honey bee into North America. The bees colonized nesting sites formerly used by the birds.

The nest builders encountered in the pampas turn out to be Monk parakeets, native to Argentina, though the eucalyptus trees they prefer for nest-building come from Australia. The now-common eucalyptus, planted in a landscape historically dominated by grassland, has contributed to a population explosion of the parakeets.

Each nest has multiple holes, each housing a mating pair.

Monk parakeets, also called Quaker parrots, have a parallel presence in New Jersey, where some escaped 40 years ago to form self-sustaining populations, most notably in Edgewater, NJ, where they enjoy their own website and the support of human advocates.

Their nest-building in NJ has caused controversy when applied to utility poles, which can lead to power outages. Maybe they're encouraging humans to lead a more sustainable, off-the-grid lifestyle, of the sort they clearly have mastered.

Though they give aid to the imagination, none of the pigeons in the pampas are close relatives of the passenger pigeon. For those, one would have to travel to the western U.S. to see the Band-tailed pigeon, or to Patagonia in southern Chile and Argentina to see the Chilean Pigeon (Patagioenas araucana).

In another twist in the ancient and modern links between North and South Americas, like the Australian eucalyptus trees common in the pampas, the pine tree this unidentified pigeon is perching on is also an import, from the northern hemisphere.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Asphalt-Eating Plant

One of the sillier things people do is plant Bermuda grass next to asphalt. In another place and another time, I advocated for using native seedmixes for planting the bare ground next to new biketrails, so the trails could become corridors of native diversity. Another approach, in some ways preferable, is to stabilize bare ground with an annual grass that will allow the local flora to reclaim the ground in succeeding years. Instead, the powers that be planted Bermuda grass, a perennial turfgrass that excluded native species and proceeded to eat the asphalt. Counterproductive, to say the least.

I've seen this effect in Princeton as well, where a homeowner probably threw down some Bermuda grass seed to fill a bare spot. The grass then spread through the lawn to the driveway, where it began eating away at the edges. Bermuda grass is a warm-season grass, which means it can be most easily spotted in a lawn during the winter, when it turns brown.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Monocultures in the Making

Around Princeton, I've been watching with a sense of foreboding the increasing presence of two species that, though still uncommon here, have proven extremely invasive elsewhere. One is of Asian origin, the other a native from the coast that's rapidly expanding its range.

Chinese bush clover, also known as Sericea lespedeza (Lespedeza cuneata), is widely used by departments of transportation (DOT) to quickly vegetate ground made bare by road construction. When it was introduced, it was hailed as a good wildlife food, but later analysis showed that its seeds, smaller than native bush clover seeds, passed through birds' digestive systems intact--convenient for the plant's dissemination but useless for the wildlife. Though Chinese bushclover is good at holding soil in place, it is so aggressive that it excludes other grassland species, forming in time a monoculture. It serves one environmental goal (erosion control) while sabotaging another (biodiversity).

In Princeton, Chinese bush clover can be found most frequently along Transco's pipeline right of way, either planted intentionally or accidentally introduced as a contaminant in a seed mix. These rights of way currently host a fairly diverse mix of grasses and wildflowers, but given Chinese bushclover's behavior elsewhere (the photo shows a freeway embankment in Durham, NC), it's only a matter of time before those rights of way lose their diversity and most of their value for wildlife.

Particularly with so many rights of way being built or expanded, there's an urgent need to shift to seed mixes with species that establish quickly but also allow a diverse mix of native species to establish over time. I fought this fight while living in North Carolina, suggesting alternatives like the native partridge pea or, if need be, exotic species that would establish quickly but then allow other species to move in. Together, roadsides and rights of way comprise a vast amount of acreage. What grows in them helps determine how hospitable the world is for wildlife and plant diversity. If you've ever tried to reform a Department of Transportation, though, you know what it's like to be David going up against Goliath, holding a partridge pea flower instead of a slingshot.

When I first encountered Groundsel Tree (Baccharis halimifolia) along an abandoned trainline in NC, I wondered what was this distinctive, attractive bush with the abundant white flowers so late in the fall. In recent years, though, I've watched it take over meadows, shading out the herbaceous species, and completely dominate along roadways, replacing diverse vegetation with a monoculture. Baccharis is native to the eastern U.S. coastal plain, but has spread inland to the piedmont along roadways, and is beginning to show up along Route 1. (Photo is from I-85 in Durham, NC)

This license plate speaks for all who witness nature being gradually thrown out of balance.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Distinguishing Carpgrass from Stiltgrass

Most people are familiar with Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum), the now ubiquitous annual grass that forms dense pastures of green in the shade of forests, and thrives in miniature in lawns.

Less common, confined to wet areas, is an invasive look-alike called carpgrass (Arthraxon hispidus). The curly edges of the leaves give it away. Google "carp grass" and you end up with links to information on grass carps, an Asian fish brought to the U.S. to control invasive aquatic plants.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Zimbabwe Great To Perform Saturday at Pettoranello Gardens

Two loves, music and nature, come together this Saturday at Pettoranello Gardens. Oliver Mtukudzi occupies a special place in our household. His 2002 album, Vhunze Moto, is my number one favorite music to dance to. The only other thing I know about him is that he will be performing at Princeton's Pettoranello Gardens this coming Saturday, July 20. To have this legendary musician from Zimbabwe performing for free in Princeton is extraordinary. (The following night he'll be headlining a performance in New York's Central Park.)

From Blue Curtain's Facebook page, it looks like a group from Cameroon called FRANCIS MBAPPE and the FM Tribe will perform at 7pm, with Mtukudzi and the Black Spirits coming on afterwards. Whether the music will correspond to what I've listened to again and again on a favorite album is hard to know, but there's only one way to find out.

More on Mtukudzi at his Facebook page. You can also use google to find videos, or find snippets of tunes on his albums at

A previous experience hearing music at Pettoranello Gardens as a storm rolled in can be found here.

(Also posted at

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Cicadas, Monarchs, and June Beetles in July

Some insects are easy to identify, like the first summer sounds of cicadas a few days ago.

Also the first sighting of a monarch butterfly in the garden, with a fresh pair of wings, feeding on newly opened flowers of swamp milkweed. Maybe the garden will serve as nursery for the next generation of Monarchs, ultimately leading to the late summer generation that will fly all the way back to those few acres of forest in the mountains northwest of Mexico City, where the whole eastern population overwinters.

But what's that large insect flying low over the grass in the frontyard? A few showed up last week, and now there are maybe six or seven that circle and hover, but refuse to stay still long enough to allow a good look.

No, they aren't those scarily named cicada killers, or bee flies, or hoverflies.

Caught in my daughter's butterfly net, the insect revealed itself to be a scarab beetle, specifically a Green June Beetle. The southern species is called a Fig Beetle, after its taste for the fermented juice in damaged fruit.

Here's a description from the Penn State website of their summer flying habits and one-generation-per-year approach to perpetuating themselves:
"Females fly over the turf’s surface early in the morning, while males fly from mid- to late morning. Females produce a substance that attracts the males to them prior to mating. After females mate, they dig into the turf to lay a cluster of 10 to 30 eggs in a compacted ball of soil about the size of a walnut. Females prefer moist organic soil. The eggs are nearly round, about 1/16 inch in diameter, absorb soil moisture, and hatch in 10 to 15 days. The grubs are nocturnal feeders and consume decaying organic matter. Larvae molt three times until they reach the third instar. As cool fall temperatures arrive, the nearly mature, 1½-inch third-instar grubs dig deeper in the soil to overwinter."

Monday, July 15, 2013

Part 3 of Making Gardens Last--Westminster Parking Lot

Neighbors on Linden Lane fought hard a couple years ago against the expansion of the Westminster Choir College parking lot. Seeing water collect in the open field, I had often thought it would make a great wetland garden for all the beautiful native species that prosper in wet ground. Despite arguments to the contrary, the parking lot was built, but because of stormwater regulations, some of the land was devoted to receiving runoff from the pavement in a small scale version of what I had imagined. In this first photo, a native wildflower seldom seen in Princeton gardens, Blazing Star (Liatris sp.) was planted in a large raingarden that serves as buffer between pavement and neighbors. It's bizarre to see crew members armed with weed whippers tending this planting, but they somehow manage to keep the grass down and the blazing stars up.

Two other raingardens, though, running in narrow strips between sections of the parking lot, have been left to grow up in weeds that hitchhiked in with the trucked-in topsoil. Blazing star and cardinal flower are blooming just as the landscaper's plans had envisioned,

but most are lost in the ocean of weeds and will likely be killed if the competing weeds aren't removed.

The weeds can be an interesting field trip in and of themselves. Horse weed is a native that grows tall and gangly.

Haven't seen pigweed much around Princeton, but obviously it's flourishing wherever the topsoil came from.

Smartweed (Polyganum sp.) often has what looks like a thumbprint on its leaves.

This weed, Queen Anne's Lace, a.k.a. a wild version of our carrot (Daucus carota) is ornamental. It's not native, and can get rambunctious in midwestern prairies, to the point of displacing native species, but has not been particularly invasive hereabouts.

If you look closely at the middle of the plate of tiny flowers, you'll find a purple dot.

Despite being of some botanical interest, the weeds dominating 2/3rds of the parking lot plantings are not what the original plan called for.

The Westminster parking lot planting is a good example of how native plants and the use of raingardens have become integrated into requirements for construction, but the maintenance side of the equation has not caught up. Maintenance, despite determining the ultimate success or failure of a planting, is given low priority, and ill-trained crews often end up doing more harm than good. The right plants go in, for the most part, but if they aren't knowledgeably maintained, you'll still end up with a failed planting, a lost investment in beauty, and a reversion to a boring trees n' turf landscape.

(Photo shows a Clethra alnifolia competing with the weeds.)

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Chain Saw Gardening--the Sequel

A couple weeks ago, after witnessing the now neglected gardens planted at Harrison Street Park three years ago, I walked over to the Whole Earth Center, where a man was trimming the raingarden with a chainsaw. I didn't ask him to pose for a photo, but you can see plant debris littering the sidewalk.

A clipped bit of soft rush, no match for a chainsaw blade, was being held up for examination by the resident frog. It seemed inauspicious, that a garden I had installed a few years back was being given the chainsaw treatment. It happened last year with another raingarden down the street. But this time around the chainsaw treatment didn't go much beyond trimming back some of the native mistflower that had been leaning out over the sidewalk.

Strange to say, this garden is actually prospering despite the complete lack of coordination between the various entities who care for it. There's the crew hired by the out of town landlord, which lays down fresh mulch in the spring and this year added the chainsaw to its arsenal. In addition, there's someone on staff at the Whole Earth Center who does occasional watering, and then I stop by when I think of it, adding a few plants here and there. Some of what I plant gets smothered by the mulch, or gets pulled out unwittingly by the landlord's crew, but actually communicating with the other caretakers would be harder than dealing with the periodic setbacks.

Its success comes also from an auspicious hydrology. Roof water, which normally would go directly from the downspout out into the street, is instead funneled through a perforated pipe running just underground along the garden's full length. This extra dose of water allows the fringed sedge, soft rush, buttonbush and mistflower to prosper.

Before this was a garden, it was an elaborate sculpture of wooden stumps and logs installed by Peter Soderman. From what I heard, the fire officials took exception to all that wood next to a building, so only a couple pieces remain.

If I had thought of it, I might have suggested the man with the chainsaw trim back the pre-flowering stages of cutleaf coneflower and boneset on either side of the flowering oakleaf hydrangia. They'd simply bloom a little later, and be less likely to flop over. But who knows what a little encouragement would cause him to do next time.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Comeback Chestnuts and Butternuts in Princeton

On the 7th day of the 7th month, when the Brits via Andy Murray came back after 77 years to reclaim the Wimbledon men's tennis title, I took a hike with arborist Bob Wells to see some of the comeback kids he had found along the Princeton Ridge, in the form of native chestnuts and butternuts. Bob had recently conducted a tree inventory for Princeton, completing the township portion that can then be merged with the borough's. Along the way, he found a chestnut and a couple butternuts--species that have been laid low by introduced diseases. The number of naturally occurring specimens known to still be growing in Princeton can be counted on one hand.

I found Bob sitting in the woods near Bunn Drive with his dog, Mongo. While waiting for me, he had counted 21 woody species around him, a testament to the Ridge's diversity. Multiple kinds of hickories, maples and oaks, a beech tree, ironwood, cherry, tulip poplar, black birch, sweetgum, two kinds of Viburnum, witchhazel--learn to identify trees and you'll never be alone in the woods.

One of the other species was a solitary American chestnut tree of 6 inch diameter,

its distinctive leaves backlit by the afternoon sun.

One branch appeared already to have succumbed to the blight that laid waste this once dominant species of the eastern forests. The species as a whole went underground, its roots surviving, sending up suckers that would in time be killed off by the blight. Bob wasn't sanguine about this particular tree's chances, but at least it's still there, a century since the species was stricken by imported disease, still growing towards the sun.

Our next stop was further up the road, where clearing for the new Westerly Road Church had left a tall, gangly butternut out in the open. Though the native butternut (Juglans cinerea), also known as white walnut, was never a dominant species, and Princeton is on the southern edge of its range, its numbers have been reduced still further by an imported fungus.

Bob double checked the book's description. Thirteen leaflets, positioned opposite and stalkless, fit well,

and the dark brown pith. The trunk being hollow, Bob wasn't too optimistic about this tree's longterm chances, either, but to find a survivor is always reason for hope.

Heading around the bend onto Herrontown Road, Bob pointed out the thinned out foliage of a number of ash trees. Ash dieback, ash decline, something's going on with Princeton's ashes, and not much is known about the cause. Thinking it might be the arrival of the Emerald Ash Borer, the Asian insect accidentally introduced into Michigan that has been devastating ash trees on its way east, Bob arranged to have some traps set in the area. Results were negative.

To know and love trees is to realize that we cannot take our forests for granted, that behind the facade of static green is a shifting drama of competition, predicted demise, potential comeback, and mystery as engaging on its time scale as any sport. People play negative or sometimes positive roles in this high-stakes game. The easy accident of introducing a new disease to America is followed by a very long and hard struggle to save the species that are then pushed to the brink.

Our last stop was Autumn Hill Reservation, where Bob led me to a healthy butternut back in the woods, with room in the canopy to grow. I thought I saw another some 100 feet further off the trail, with impenetrable brush impeding our effort to confirm.

The bark of a butternut has a distinctive weave to the ridges. As you can see they've been known to sport a green trail marker, though they receive less compensation than famous athletes with product logos attached.

A few days later, I showed these trees to local nut tree expert, Bill Sachs, who has been growing and reintroducing American chestnuts and butternuts in various Princeton parks. He had located three butternuts growing naturally in Princeton, two of which have since been lost--one to a chainsaw, the other to flood and wind. Bob's discoveries bring the number back to three, plus all the seedlings Bill has grown.

We loppered our way through the invasive brush to reach what I had thought was an additional butternut 100 feet off the trail. A closer look proved it to be a black walnut.

Butternuts need more than one tree in order to bear nuts. The hope is that these few survivors have some level of resistance to the attacking fungi, and if we can start new groupings of these trees that will then bear seeds, these species can be coaxed back from the brink, to take their rightful place in Princeton's future.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Harry's Brook's Milky White Mystery Solved?

There's been a possible breakthrough in the case of the milky white color observed in Harry's Brook on June 20.

Reader Bill Sachs, better known for his work to bring the American chestnut back to Princeton, suggested the following: "If this hasn’t already occurred to you, chances are someone emptied the remains of a can of white water-soluble latex paint (or cleaned their brushes and emptied the wash water) in a drain connected to the Brook. The pigment in white paint is titanium dioxide… and it doesn’t take much to create a milky-white suspension. Easy to analyze for, too."

Other possibility:
I passed this idea along to Amy Soli of the StonyBrook-Millstone Watershed Association, which has long been active in monitoring water quality in Princeton's streams. She had been suspecting an algal bloom "that was short-lived in duration", judging from the floc in the sample that I had given them.

My less than ideal sample of the milky water:
She added that the sample "really couldn't be analyzed for anything as the sample was old, wasn't preserved, and was in a plastic bottle (many things can bind to plastic, which is why glass is preferred for most parameters- pathogens and a few other parameters are exceptions). We did consider runoff of sediments but could not identify any construction areas nearby that could have contributed light colored sediments (do you know of any in the area)."

Supporting the paint possibility: Amy said that "the paint theory is a pretty good one. We still have the sample. I can't test it for titanium dioxide, but I can see if one of our labs can do so."

Online data on Harry's Brook's water quality:
You can go to to explore data on Harry's Brook, going back quite a few years. Most noticeable is the high levels of phosphorous. There may be additional data from the "Water Ambassador" water quality testing program on the state DEP site.

Thanks to everyone who has helped thus far in making sense of this pollution. Lots of pollution is invisible, and I've also heard word that the underground section of Harry's Brook extending upstream to Spring Street may be getting significant infiltration from leaky sewers in the oldest part of town. If so, this sort of pollution is having downstream consequences, as Harry's Brook empties into Lake Carnegie, which in turn feeds the Millstone River.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Backyard Conversation in Color

The days are hot. Deluge has given way to searing sun. Tall meadow rue casts clouds of white.

 Beebalm holds a parade in tattered red.

Buttonbush offers up golf balls from the water trap,

but the lawn chairs say, "Hey, take a load off. Sit back and listen,"

while the daylilies proclaim "Princeton!",

and the ducks say "Quack!"

Would-Be Shrub Lacks Wood

Ever wonder what a shrub would be without wood? It would be a would-be shrub, better known as a vine

that in this case goes by the name Japanese honeysuckle, which years back grew up and over a real shrub that eventually succumbed to the suffocating shade and began a slow-motion collapse under the weight of the vine's boa-like envelopment. It really can be seen as a form of digestion. No doubt the vine has been prospering on the nutrients slowly released by the decaying shrub infrastructure within.

I doubt that anyone at the Senior Resource Center on Spruce Circle even noticed what the vine would, could, and did.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Harrison Street Park Landscaping Threatened

From time to time, the monotony of trees and turf  in town landscapes triggers the impulse to plant native gardens in public spaces. Such was the case with Princeton's Harrison Street Park 3 years ago, when some $30,000 of native plants were installed as part of this formerly borough park's renovation. Ideally, plantings like this can make static landscapes more beautiful and dynamic, reduce runoff by replacing shallow rooted grass with deeply rooted perennials and shrubs, and provide food and cover for wildlife, particularly beneficial insects like pollinators. There's also the chance that adults, at loose ends while their children play, and kids exploring the park, will notice some of the native diversity and take an interest.

But the one-time act of planting is not the same as the long haul of tending, much as a one night stand differs from a marriage. Neighborhood volunteers worked heroically the first season, in 2010, to keep the plantings alive. (Is it pure coincidence that an ambitious planting of native plants always seems to be followed by a horrendous drought?). The success of that first season, critical as it was, still leaves all the years that follow. With municipal funding often skewed towards capital improvements rather than long term maintenance, who will maintain the plantings, or, more to the point, who will care enough, love them enough, or otherwise be paid enough, to be there dependably, knowledgeably, energetically, to safeguard the initial investment and intervene before problems spin out of control?

That question has thus far remained unanswered, as the well-known botanical bully mugwort mugs the intended plants in one bed,

a summersweet shrub struggles to find light amidst towering Canada thistles in another,

weedy grasses overwhelm whatever plantings were meant to occupy the berm next to the swingset,

and a volunteer silver maple seedling juts awkwardly out where low wildflowers were meant to ornament the entryway.

Even these few plants that are well-mulched and free of weeds have a sea of ground ivy headed their way.

"All natural", one might say, as one cites Darwin's survival of the fittest and eases back into the easy chair of indifference. But a town park is not a healthy ecosystem with all the complex components needed to maintain balance. It's a rigged game from the start. The soil is full of seeds of plant species that evolved on other continents and left all their checks and balances behind when they were brought here. One can make educated guesses about which native plants will grow best where, but without ongoing t.l.c. the weeds will take over and the beds will eventually be mowed down, bringing back the trees n' turf landscape that neighbors said they didn't want.

The lack of needed attention points to a longstanding gap in municipal staffing. As far as I know, not one parks maintenance employee can identify even a few of the native plants installed at considerable expense in Harrison Street Park. The town has an arborist, police, teachers--all trained to nurture and maintain a positive and conducive order among, respectively, trees, adults and children, and yet when it comes to the large majority of the plant world that doesn't have the good fortune to contain wood, we put someone on a lawnmower and tell them to have at it.

Maybe the newly formed Princeton parks commission can address this. Maybe there needs to be a skilled landscaper employed for enough hours to help organize and oversee volunteer days of the sort that kept the Harrison Street Park plantings alive their first summer. The more one stays on top of things, the less work it takes. In the meantime, a significant investment and a worthy approach to enriching the park experience is quietly being lost in a sea of weeds.