Monday, September 30, 2013

A Good Hornet That's Not a Hornet

Finally, I got a photo of the salt and pepper-colored bee-like thing that was flying around our boneset this summer. Unlike the fifty or so other species of insect and spider that for weeks were visiting or residing on our mini-grove of boneset flowers, this one would never land, but instead patrol the airy avenues, in and around the flowers, as if hunting for prey.

The wonders of the internet led me to a Penn State factsheet on the creature. Turns out it's a baldfaced hornet, although you may know it by its scientific nickname, good old Dolichovespula maculata, in the family Vespidae.

As with many common names, this one's a bald-faced lie, because the insect is not a hornet at all. The only true hornet in North America is an introduced species. What was patrolling my boneset was a kind of yellowjacket. Besides not being yellow, it also varies from other yellowjacket species in building its nests in the air rather than underground. Yellowjacket species can be considered to be beneficial, in that they prey on other insects that could be considered a nuisance, but the baldfaced hornet has the added benefit of preying on other species of yellowjacket. I'm not sure the logic of that sentence would survive scrutiny, but I'll stick with it for now. The notion of beneficence will be lost on anyone who disturbs a nest, but if the nest is out of the way, then the recommendation is to leave it be.

Riding on the DR Canal towpath yesterday, I found this nest suspended on a tree branch over the canal. I didn't have my better camera, but got close enough to give the general idea. One of them flew over to me, but as usual I didn't react, and it flew away. The nest has small vents on top to release hot air but minimize how much rain can get in.

When I was a kid, some sort of wasp built a nest on my bedroom window. I got to watch them applying the paste to build each new layer of walls, and of course had the boyish joy of later poking a hole in the nest with a stick before running back inside. Such is the early training to become a naturalist.

There was even a convenient explanation for why I finally found one sitting still, perched on a flower. Baldfaced hornets prey on other insects in order to feed their young high-protein food, but as summer wanes there are fewer young to feed, and they start shifting over to feeding on nectar.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Going Negative On Natives

There's a movement afoot to blur the distinction between native and non-native species, and to berate, belittle, besmear, besmirch, and otherwise ascribe questionable motives to those of us who seek to restore native diversity. The arguments and accusations put forth are highly flawed, including a recent oped in the New York Times. Below is a rebuttal I originally posted two weeks ago at This issue is coming up more frequently, including an NPR Science Friday show today, which I haven't listened to as yet.

The New York Times is one of the bedrocks of news, which makes it hard to understand why its opinion page would show a weakness for ill-informed attacks on native plants and their proponents. The latest is by Verlyn Klinkenborg, a point-by-point rebuttal of which can be found further down in this post, but his is just one in a series.

First in my memory is George Ball, president of Burpee Seed Company and former president of the American Horticultural Society, who despite these distinguished labels launched an error-filled broadside (Border War, 3/19/06) against people who promote the planting of native flora. In his words, people who promote natives are xenophobic, narrowminded, the horticultural equivalent of radical fundamentalists, utopian, elitist snobs, anti-exotic partisans, and (last but not least) dangerous to a free society.

Then there was Sean Wilsey, (High Line, Low Aims, 7/9/08) who spoke disparagingly of the proposal to plant a ribbon of native species on Manhattan's High Line. Apparently lacking any botanical or ecological knowledge that might have heightened his appreciation of the plan, he made it sound like the High Line would be little more than a linear patch of weedy sumac--a species he may have confused with the ubiquitous non-native Tree of Heaven. Time, and the spectacular congregation of native plants that now thrive on the very popular elevated walkway, have proven him wrong.

The latest installment of this attack on native plant advocacy, as mentioned, arrived this past week (Hey, You Calling Me an Invasive Species?, 9/7/13), written by a member of the Times' editorial board, Verlyn Klinkenborg. Avoiding George Ball's name-calling and Sean Wilsey's dismissive tone, his thesis is that the distinction between native and nonnative species is now an arbitrary one, given the passage of centuries and the ever-expanding influence of humans on the natural world.

Klinkenborg's opinion piece was prompted by recent public protests against a plan to thin out a dense forest of non-native eucalyptus trees growing on Mount Sutro in San Francisco. The University of California San Francisco (UCSF) owns the property, which the local fire department has said is in urgent need of thinning in order to protect nearby buildings from the highly combustible eucalyptus. Reducing the dense shade will improve the health of the trees while providing some light for native vegetation to grow beneath them. Sounds benign, yet locals who walk in the forest are calling the proponents of the plan "plant facists" who want to impose the tyranny of nativism on a woods that is perfect just the way it is.

Joining the chorus of protest, Nathan Winograd, an animal rights advocate who blogs on the Huffington Post wrote a post about the Mount Sutro tree-thinning plan entitled "Biological Xenophobia: The Environmental Movement's War on Nature". Adopting the strident tone of George Ball, he has nothing but contempt for the concept of native plants, preferring that "every life that appears on this Earth is welcomed and respected." Apparently, he's never grown any plant he valued enough to save from the weeds.

The most informative report, as opposed to opinion, on the San Francisco controversy that I could find is here. The university describes the plan this way: "Under the guidance of an outside licensed arborist, UCSF will remove approximately 1,250 trees, each less than 6 inches in diameter, while also thinning shrubs and mowing non-woody perennial plants in the 100-foot buffer zone. All told, the work will encompass approximately 15.6 acres of the 61-acre Reserve."

Here is a point by point rebuttal of Mr. Klinkenborg's opinion piece:

"Since the 1880s, there have been blue gum eucalyptus trees growing on San Francisco’s Mount Sutro, which lies just south of Golden Gate Park. Recently, the University of California, San Francisco, which owns most of Mount Sutro, has been trying to thin the dense eucalyptus forest. The reason is fire control — eucalyptus trees are “fire intensive,” shedding a lot of debris and burning with unusual volatility. But the effort to cull the Mount Sutro forest has been met with strident protest by residents who want to see the eucalyptus left untouched."
Mr. Klinkenborg only mentions fire once in the oped, but fire hazard is a big deal in the California landscape, and the planting of Eucalyptus trees close to structures has doomed many a building when the trees' high flammability causes them to explode. The link he offers, another opinion piece in a distinguished scientific journal, Science, actually offers compelling reasons to alter the forest. There's the current fire hazard to reduce, and the opportunity to improve habitat for the resident great horned owls by re-establishing some native flora. 
By the standard of the California Native Plant Society, eucalyptus, which were brought from Australia, are officially nonnative trees because they were introduced after the first European contact with the New World. But the trees on Mount Sutro have been there within the memory of every living San Franciscan, and to the generations who have grown up within view of them, it seems almost perverse to insist that they are aliens.
No science here, just an anthropocentric view that wishes the rest of nature to conform to the human sense of time.
To keep a clear distinction between native and nonnative species requires nearly geologic memory. 
No, one hundred and thirty years, or even three or four hundred, is not even close to a geologic scale.
But humans, like most species, don’t live in the past, where the distinction originates. In the present, the difference is largely immaterial. 
This isn't true. Though wildlife don't literally live in the past, their tastebuds do. Herbivores tend to be extremely conservative in their food preferences. Whether it be deer or the larvae of moths and butterflies, they continue to reject exotic species introduced hundreds of years ago. They still prefer to eat the native species, which gives exotics a competitive advantage, which makes native plants rare, which then limits wildlife's food options. 
Native or nonnative, California’s eucalyptus trees, like the starlings of Central Park, have come to seem original just because they predate us.
Again, he imposes an anthropocentric view on nature.
Of course, the vast majority of nonnative species have not been intentionally introduced, as the Mount Sutro eucalyptus were, but have been distributed accidentally, unnoticed baggage in the wanderings of our species.
Whether a species is introduced intentionally or unintentionally has no bearing on the potential harm the species can do, just as the impact of human-caused global warming will bear no relation to whether we have intended to change the climate or not. 
Some species — invasive ones like kudzu, Japanese knotweed, rabbits and rats — find almost unlimited room for expansion in their new environs, often overwhelming native species. But not all introduced species are invasive, and pose a threat only when they outcompete native species.
Excellent! It's so important to make the distinction between invasive and non-invasive species. 
It’s important to remember that the distinction between native and nonnative depends on an imaginary snapshot of this continent taken just before European contact. 
Not so imaginary, really. Though American Indians transformed the landscape, spreading some plant species along trade routes, favoring some species through cultivation or burning, or denuding the landscape, e.g. around Teotihuacan to heat the plaster for their pyramids, the massive influx of species from other continents did not begin until Western colonization. It's well known which species are or were part of a particular plant community. The bur oak savannas of the midwest, which had disappeared due to the invasion of buckthorn and other exotics, were pieced back together through research and restoration, and now flourish once again. Whole books describe in detail the various plant communities of a given region, such as this onedetailing the plant communities of North Carolina. 
               That distinction is becoming even harder to make as climate change alters the natural world.
A new study from the University of Exeter and Oxford University finds that plant pests and diseases have been migrating northward and southward an average of two miles a year since 1960. This suggests that the plants on which they prey have been moving at similar rates. In places like the Adirondacks, for instance, you can follow the boundary between southern and northern tree species as it shifts northward, year by year. As plants and their pests adjust their range, under the influence of global warming, what becomes of the distinction between native and nonnative? 
Plants and animals have been shifting their regional boundaries throughout the last four hundred thousand years, as glaciers advanced and receded. Human-caused climate change is happening much more rapidly, which is one reason why it is proving so destructive, but most plant species have broad geographic ranges. Climate change doesn't mean that plant communities developed over millenia suddenly have no integrity. 
To any individual species, it doesn’t matter whether it’s native or not. The only thing that matters is whether its habitat is suitable.
 Again, because herbivore food preferences tend to remain unchanged hundreds of years after the introduction of exotic species, suitable habitat tends to equate with native plant species. 
And this is where we come in.
For the most part, we don’t have an immediate impact on the species that surround us. But we do have an immediate impact on their habitat, which determines whether they survive or, in some cases, shift their ground.
Nearly every habitat on this planet has been affected by humans, no matter how remote it is. In the past decade, for instance, the habitats of grizzly bears high in the Rocky Mountains — places most of us never get a chance to visit — have been significantly altered by global warming. As the climate warms, the mountain pine beetle has managed to winter over and destroy vast tracts of whitebark pine trees, which produce pine nuts that bears eat.
When I visited a hillside in Smokey Mountain National Park where hemlock had been wiped out by the exotic wooly adelgid, growing beneath the dead trunks was a riot of native wildflowers and brambles, representing a plant community that deep shade had suppressed. The devastation of whitebark pine trees in the Rockies is tragic, and the loss of that important species may have broad ramifications over time for that ecosystem, but that doesn't mean that native landscapes suddenly lose all meaning and relevance because one species drops out.
CONSIDERED in this light, the natural world as a whole begins to look like Central Park — an ecosystem where human influence is all pervasive. Parts of the park seem almost wild, but every creature in Central Park, native or not, has adapted to a world that is closely bounded by human activity. It is nature bordered by high-rises, intersected by paths and roadways, basking under artificial light at night.
In late August, a group of scientists and students from the City University of New York’s Macaulay Honors College spent the day cataloging all the nondomesticated life forms living in the park. It will take a while to compile and compare the data, but even the anecdotal reports from that single day show how diverse and surprising the park’s ecosystem can be. It isn’t all squirrels and pigeons. The group reported sightings of several unexpected species — a diamondback terrapin in Turtle Pond, a Wilson’s warbler in the North Woods, a bullhead catfish in the Harlem Meer. And though it might seem like a stretch to talk about ecosystems in Central Park, that is exactly what the group found — a healthy mix of species, overlapping generations within many species, and a sense of balance, especially within the aquatic zones.
Actually, a lot of work has been done to restore native species and habitat in Central Park, and it's the only sizable green space for miles for wildlife like birds and insects to gravitate to, so it's not surprising it would exhibit some diversity.
Nature in Central Park can’t be neatly divided into native of nonnative species, and neither can it be on Mount Sutro. The eucalyptus trees that grow there may be naturalized rather than native, but try telling that to all the other creatures that live in those woods or the people who hike there.
 This would be more convincing if it actually described what diversity resides on Mount Sutro. In Princeton, we had a woods that was densely planted in the 1960s with white pine and spruce--species whose native range lies farther north. The woods had considerable charm and a nice mood to it, but it was an ecological desert, with little more than garlic mustard growing in the deep shade and thick mulch of the evergreens, and reportedly an owl or two making use of the dense canopy for protection. (Mount Sutro, from what descriptions I could find, looks to be similarly slim on diversity, dominated by the eucalyptus, with an understory of English ivy and poison ivy, and a stifling and highly flammable thick mulch of eucalyptus litter.) 
Their trunks weak from age and crowding, most of the pines and spruce in the planted woods in Princeton fell during several ice and wind storms, leaving an impenetrable mess that will become a fire trap as the debris dries out. Ash trees, the only seedlings that the too-numerous deer didn't eat, are now taking over, and before long, the introduced Emerald Ash Borer will arrive to kill all the ash.  
A similar fate could await the planted woods on Mount Sutro, in the form of a cataclysmic fire. That, though far more destructive than what the university is trying to do, would not be as controversial, because it would occur due to inaction rather than action. I'm well aware of the capacity for good intentions to go awry, but sometimes inaction can be the most destructive action of all.
And when it comes to the distinction between native and nonnative, we always leave one species out: call us what you will — native, naturalized, alien or invasive.
I don't want to read too much into this, but Mr. Klinkenborg seems to be suggesting here that because we are a species that invaded the American continent, we therefore cannot be judging other invasive species. With such logic, our compromised position brings into question our capacity to understand nature and act upon what we know. 

The attempt to blur the distinction between native and non-native depends on a highly simplified view of nature and evolution. It ignores the deep interconnections species develop while co-evolving over thousands of years.  It sees no symbiotic relationship between soil fungi and plant roots, between an insect and its obligate host plant, between a particular species of ant and the plant that depends upon it to disperse its seeds. Some species, like humans, are highly adaptable to new circumstances. Others are not. Embracing non-native landscapes may give people the comforting illusion of being open-minded, but it closes the door on those more conservative, less adaptable species. 

Related Writings by Verlyn Klinkenborg

It's long been my observation that environmental issues get marginalized on the opinion pages of the news media, likely because columnists and editors tend to lack training in the life sciences. If environmental issues come up, they tend to be treated in isolation rather than seen in the broader context of economics and political concerns. On the New York Times editorial board, Mr. Klinkenborg appears to represent the sum total of biological expertise. His doctoral degree from Princeton University is in english literature. I'm all for self-education, and hopefully he took some biology-related courses along the way. 

Some of his writings for National Geographic appear to contradict his opinion piece dismissing the relevance of native habitats. For instance, an essay on the Endangered Species Act states that people
"discovered, too late, how finely attuned to its home in the cordgrass the dusky seaside sparrow really was. That last bottled sparrow is what a species looks like when its habitat has vanished for good."
In an essay on the tallgrass prairie, rather than downplaying the importance of native plant communities, he seeks a deeper understanding of them:
"The hard part here in the Flint Hills—and in any of the few remaining patches of native prairie—is learning to see the tallgrass ecosystem for itself. It is a study in the power of modesty."
Rather than giving simplified plantings like the eucalyptus on Mount Sutro equal status with native plant communities, he states:
"In most of America, agriculture has meant replacing the incredible complexity of a natural ecosystem with the incredible simplicity of a single crop growing on bare ground."
That incredibly complex prairie ecosystem, however, is threatened by an invasive non-native plant called Sericea lespedeza (Korean bushclover). Rather than showing concern about the impact of that invasion, Mr. Klinkenborg worries about the human intervention to counter the invasion:
"There is also a worrying trend toward ground and aerial spraying to control a highly invasive weed called sericea lespedeza, introduced decades ago to curb erosion around mines and provide forage and cover for wildlife around reservoirs."
Now, I happen to know Sericea lespedeza well. I've seen how it moves in and eventually replaces a richly diverse native meadow with a monoculture. Though originally touted as a good wildlife food, both its seeds and foliage provide little nourishment. Its roots release toxins that discourage other plant species. If you're looking for an example of intolerance, of a refusal to "play well with others", Sericea lespedeza is Exhibit A. When it invades new territory, land managers have a choice--either let the noxious weed continue to degrade native habitat, or attempt to limit the weed's destructive impact by intervening, often with selective herbicides.

The objections of Klinkenborg and others to intervention are in part a failure to make distinctions. They want to blur the distinction between native and non-native species. The toxicity of herbicides varies according to type and method of application, but its easier for protesters to demonize them all. Nathan Winograd, in his broadside against native plant advocates, wishes to obliterate all distinctions and treasure every living thing equally. More broadly in national discourse, we see a trend towards accepting all opinions as worthy, whether they are founded on fact or fancy.

Saying that we don't need to make these distinctions, nor intervene to restore native plant communities, sounds less to me like open mindedness than a convenient way of letting ourselves off the hook.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Lawn Squash

No, lawn squash is not a sport to be played with rackets, but it might help undercut the racket of endless lawns and endless mowing. This lawn in an upscale neighborhood of million dollar homes in western Princeton is the proud mother of hubbard squash, carefully mowed around for maximum ornamental effect.

Across the street, another, less edible approach to reducing front lawnage--a layer cake of english ivy topped with a white frosting of autumn clematis. Both are highly aggressive plants, here contained by surrounding strips of lawn.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Monarchs--A Miracle in Need of a Miracle

As monarch butterflies begin their migration south towards a home they've never seen but somehow know how to get to, in the mountains northwest of Mexico City, the annual miracle we've long taken for granted appears threatened. Overwintering numbers were down by 60% last winter from the year before. The total population of eastern monarchs occupied only three acres in Mexico's 130,000 acre mountain preserve. The word from New Hampshire to Michigan is that sightings are way down this year. I've seen only two of these beautiful creatures in my wildflower-packed backyard this summer, and none laid eggs on the many swamp milkweeds. What a contrast with 2007, when we had great numbers of larvae, some of which we grew in a glass bowl and later released.

Though threats of logging in the overwintering forest have now been greatly reduced, the monarchs face the increasing weather extremes associated with climate change, and the increasingly hostile North American landscape. In other words, the struggle to save the monarchs has shifted from a point source problem (their overwintering habitat) to a nonpoint source problem (the quality of habitat across the eastern U.S. and Canada).

Above all, Monarchs need to encounter milkweed as they head north from Mexico into Texas, then fan out across the midwest and east coast, with one generation giving way to the next. Last year, deep drought in Texas and elsewhere desiccated what milkweed they could find, but the even bigger problem is 100 million or more acres of farmland that once hosted some milkweed, but now have been converted to Roundup Ready corn and soybeans. 90% of corn is now grown in this way, eliminating most weeds. Fields are planted right up to fencelines and roadsides, eliminating even the borders that once were havens for milkweed.

If you drive out Quaker Bridge Road in Princeton, you can see milkweed rising up above the other weeds in a fallow field. Compare this with the picture at this link, of a corn field in Iowa. Corn for as far as the eye can see.

The photo here on the left (closeup below) shows patches of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), which spreads underground and is the most common around Princeton. Swamp milkweed blooms later, doesn't spread, and has softer leaves which you'd think the larvae would prefer, but not necessarily. Butterflyweed is a particularly beautiful milkweed with a disk of brilliant orange flowers, occasionally seen in drier meadows. There are additional prairie species of milkweed rarely encountered hereabouts.

With America's heartland becoming so hostile to Monarchs, the question increasingly becomes whether the butterflies will be able to make it to New Jersey in sufficient numbers to take advantage of the milkweed growing here. In the past ten years, acreage of overwintering butterflies in Mexico has dropped from 25 down to 3. The Roundup Ready corn was first sold commercially in 1998. Overuse of Roundup for growing these genetically engineered crops has led some weeds like giant ragweed, pigweed (both of these species grow in Princeton), and many others to gain resistance to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup. Presumably, milkweed has yet to develop resistance.

On the way out to Route 1, I stopped recently near the canal on Quaker Bridge Road to look out on a field where once I saw many Monarchs feasting on a sea of yellow tickseed sunflower (Bidens) blooms. Almost no Bidens there this year, for whatever reason.

Further down the road, near the canal bridge, there was some Bidens, but no Monarchs. Neither did I see any Monarchs on the ribbon of yellow blooms along the right of way at the Sourlands Mountains Preserve the week before.

I doubt these fishermen at the DR Canal noticed any change in the air.

Certainly drivers navigating narrow Quaker Bridge Road would not take note of any absence in the fields around them. The state of the monarch is but one of the changes quietly happening in the blur of green off to the side as we race forward.

It would be a relief if their numbers rise again, as they did after a very low year in 2004/05, but the trend is towards more agricultural herbicide and unstable climate, not less.

One question at the back of my mind is whether they depend at all on large numbers, to find each other to mate, and to make the long flight back to Mexico. Might large numbers help their momentum as they migrate, much like we are swept along by the momentum of the crowd on an urban sidewalk?

After a long drought in sightings, the visit from this monarch in my backyard a few days ago, feasting for an hour on aster and ironweed nectar, was a real gift. I wish for the past luxury of taking them for granted, though it's hard to think of them with anything but a sense of wonder. Now, this miracle needs another--a nation that cares enough to change its farming practices and the kind of energy it uses, if not for the Monarch, then for ourselves.

There was one day, as a boy walking home across the expansive lawn of Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin, when I looked up to see the sky completely filled with Monarchs passing through. Such a sight stays with you forever. Though the memory is mine, it is each year's new generations of Monarchs, migrating 2500 miles to New Jersey, that bring it back.

In New Jersey, monarchs migrating south get channeled through Cape May. Here's a blog with daily updates on numbers.

Below are some articles:

One on NPR radio, another in The New York Times,
and a USAtoday article, which may pester you with an ad on an attached video.

An explanation of how they navigate can be found here.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Positive Energy--Open Space and Jazz

The world throws plenty of obstructions in the way of doing the right thing, but sometimes all of those obstructions fade into the background and good things start to happen. For two days, I rode a wave of positive energy, as people expressed a love of inner and outer nature, through tending and attending, spiffing up, getting down, riffing melodies, lopping, chopping and bebopping, blazing trails and just being simply amazing. It all started with the customary Sunday morning gathering of volunteers to spiff up Pettoranello Gardens.

This time, the regulars with the Pettoranello Foundation were helped out by members of the Rotary Club, an organization that does good works here and abroad. Along with the rewards of physical work, these workdays offer a chance to catch up with old friends.

Next stop was the Jazz Feast, featuring five groups, with guitar great Bucky Pizzarelli who's still digging deep into the grooves at 87,

and a very talented group led by British Columbia native Bria Skonberg. Her trumpet style harkens back to Louis Armstrong, with some innovative touches ala Jimi Hendricks thrown in. She mixes mean trumpet with sweet vocals on tunes like Sunny Side of the Street.

Meanwhile, on the post-consumer side of the festival, there was an innovation from the previous year in the fling department, as the organizers demonstrated the benefits of covering the recycling receptacle with a lid with a small hole, so trash would be less likely to mix with the empty bottles and cans.

After being part of the record crowds at Palmer Square, it was back the next morning to Princeton's nature preserves, with 38 Stuart School 7th graders arriving at Mountain Lakes to plant native wildflowers as part of a habitat restoration project. This workday was meaningful on multiple levels. Stuart School shares the same watershed with Mountain Lakes, which is to say the water from the school's roofs, parking lots and athletic fields flows down through the lakes. The kids were discovering, and tending to, the watershed beyond the boundaries of their school.

The plants, meanwhile--all grown from seed collected from local, indigenous populations--were grown in the greenhouse just a few steps away from the restoration site. One thing we've learned the hard way in restoration work is that it's best to start close in and work our way out, rather than choose a remote site that involves a long haul and less convenient follow up.

Aelin Compton (left), who followed me at the Resource Manager position I encouraged Friends of Princeton Open Space to create years back, was happy as could be with all the spirited help. Clark Lennon and Andrew Thornton, frequent volunteers at Mountain Lakes, were on hand to help channel all the energy.
Even a brief rain turned out to be a plus. With the kids gathered under the patio roof, I happened to find a little frog in the grass and set it on a table without saying a word. Instant excitement and fascination. That frog was like a rock star, or a pond star.

We did a Rorschach test with this photo. Is it a crab? The skull of a steer?

One of my favorite sedges, called woolgrass, was growing in the vegetated buffer along the upper lake's edge. Most native sedges start early in the spring and are by now flopped over and looking spent, but woolgrass gets a later start and keeps its form.

Work and discovery went hand in glove. Not sure what the caterpillar is.

Then it was off to the other side of town, heading northeast out Snowden Lane to Herrontown Woods for the afternoon. Deep caring and determination is finding all sorts of expressions out that way, starting with the sign itself, which Kurt Tazelaar has liberated from the enveloping foliage.

Kurt is standing in the initial opening he cut through the one remaining windblown obstruction on some 200 acres of trail he and Sally Curtis cleared in Herrontown Woods and Autumn Hill Reservation over the course of two months. Kurt's brother, John, who back in the 70s at Little Brook Elementary would walk with his classmates to Herrontown Woods for field trips, found himself enlisted in the cause for a couple days while visiting town. Many of the trails had been impassable for years. Volunteer hours, including some of my own, are approaching 400 for this renovation.

A rough count of tree rings on this white oak show that it was growing before the 1870 farm cottage was built nearby.

To learn more about these initiatives, go to,, and

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

When the Indoors Moves Outdoors

Out of college, my jazz pursuits distracting me from any high-powered career, I took a "day gig" with TLC Plant Care, which involved driving from one restaurant to another, watering the indoor plants. This was before silk plants, DJs, and iPods took the uncertainty and employment out of indoor foliage and music. "Bone dry!" my supervisor would exclaim with enthusiasm as she introduced me to the art of watering plants hung above diners in a large sunroom. "Would you like some browned fern leaves in your salad?", I imagined myself asking as I hovered above the surprised customers, teetering on a step ladder, watering can in hand. One trick helped speed the process. Because the pots were made of plastic, it was easy to tell if the plants needed water simply by their weight.

In other, darker restaurants, peace lilies and philodendrons sat in gloomy corners in an arrested state of development that echoed the trajectory of my career. Later, I got a job taking care of plants at the Michigan Union, the student center for the University of Michigan, on the front steps of which John F. Kennedy had announced his plans for the Peace Corps. Over several years, I noticed that whenever my consistent tender loving care--learned in the prior job--had elevated one or another potted plant to a state of perfection, that plant would either be stolen or vomited into. The latter tended to coincide with a big victory by one of the U of M sports teams. Now, any student in a celebratory mood wishing to vomit in the U-Club had a wide selection of well-tended potted plants to choose from, and yet some uncanny force at work in the universe somehow guided the celebrant unerringly towards the pick of the litter. Ever since, I've had a heightened awareness of how tenuous can be perfection's foothold in the world.

Since leaving that job, I've felt little love for indoor plants, preferring outdoor plants that at least have a chance of reaching sexual maturity and leading lives of their own. Predictably, as our few indoor plants around the house have languished, the wildflowers outside have thrived.

It can be a relief, after those years of tending to the light-deprived, to travel to warmer climes and see Dracaena marginatas reaching for the sky,

and encounter a Ficus benjamina whose roots aren't trapped in a pot,

with permission to grow and grow without fear of crashing into the ceiling,

a banana tree that actually bears bananas,

and a pothos no longer subject to the vicissitudes of human care.

Some indoor plants hide neglect well, but the pothos I tended always advertised neglect for all to see. Years of consistent care could be lost in just a few days of neglect. How sad it was, after somehow forgetting to water a pothos one week, to then have to pick off a long string of yellow leaves, leaving as a permanent reminder the long stretch of skinny, leafless stem.

We like our indoor plants, and somehow remember to give them enough attention to survive, but it's good to know that somewhere in the world (in this case Puerto Iguazu in northern Argentina), these plants' kin can truly thrive.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Hawk-Duck Standoff

A typical day in the backyard, the ducks hanging out, inbetween swims in the miniponds and forays to glean whatever they glean from the lawn when it's moist. The largest is the white Pekin duck on the left, with four mostly grown mallard chicks back under the lawn furniture with their mother.

But one afternoon a few days ago, I saw the Pekin chasing the young ducks into the bushes, as if it were bullying them--something I'd never seen the big duck do.

Five or ten minutes later, my daughter looked out the window to see the ducks gone and a hawk perched on the lawn furniture. Never a good sign, if you have urban poultry, but at least it wasn't giving chase to any of the ducks.

It seemed puzzled about what to do next. We ran out, and the hawk flew off, a little smaller than others, and with a beautiful fresh look to the feathers--all the more beautiful because it was flying away without any dinner.

Judging from how the white Pekin duck quickly spots soaring birds overhead, I'd guess it hadn't been bullying the younger ducks but instead herding them to cover, having spied the hawk before any of the rest of us. The big Pekin lumbers about with an exaggerated waddle, and its periodic attempts at flight are reminiscent of the flying machine the chickens build in the claymation film Chicken Run, but it may be playing the role of guardian, just vigilant and intimidating enough to keep the hawks at bay.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Color Begets Color

If you think of a flowering plant as a slow-motion firework, with a summerlong rise up to a shower of color ("Fireworks" is actually the name of a variety of goldenrod), then the goldfinch in this photo is reminiscent of those fireworks that flash in the sky, then send another ring of color out beyond the initial display, like booster rockets. As I approach, the goldfinches rise up out of the cutleaf coneflowers, flashes of gold headed to a nearby tree limb to wait until I leave.

They don't seem to care if the seeds are ripe or not, descending on the seedheads before all the petals have fallen. Being small and lightweight is an advantage when perching on a slim stem.

Other airborne yellows arrive, like this Clouded Sulphur (Colias sp.),

and a tiger swallowtail, relatively common this year, here on a cup plant bloom.

A red-spotted purple (Limenitis arthemis) showed up one day on the boneset.

This yellow-collared scape moth (Cisseps fulvicollis) is a more frequent visitor.

This is the multiplicating capacity of a wildflower garden, to layer interest upon interest. The boneset in particular are like small ecosystems, creating at least a three-tiered food chain of flower, dozens of kinds of pollinator, plus various predators thereof.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Giant Swallowtail Butterfly

Though it's been an awful year for monarch butterflies (more on that soon), the swallowtails have had a good year. I've seen mostly the yellow swallowtails, but this unusual one showed up in the backyard one day last week, ignoring the ocean of wildflowers in favor of a leaf.

Apparently more typical of the south, the giant swallowtail's caterpillars feed on members of the Rutaceae--the citrus family. Since oranges and lemons don't grow in New Jersey, that leaves lesser known members of the Rutaceae, such as the native wafer ash and prickly ash, to serve as hosts in the giant swallowtail's life cycle. I've never encountered either of these host species growing around Princeton, so the butterfly's presence here is a bit of a mystery.

A discussion group at mentions a couple possible causes of its occasional appearance hereabouts. One is that a so-called "big flight year" occurs, in which weather conditions cause butterflies to travel more than usual. Another is quoted from Butterflies of New Jersey by Michael Gochfeld - "The larvae and pupae of this species are sold commercially and the resulting adults are often released, rendering suspect any sighting of this species in New Jersey."

Here's a list of New Jersey butterflies, which includes the giant swallowtail.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Mountain Hunting in NJ--The Sourland Mountains

End of the summer, and realizing we hadn't climbed a mountain yet, it was off to the highish hills of New Jersey. There are a few mountains to choose from, if you use the word loosely. Most mountainesque might be the high rise next to the Delaware Water Gap. Closer to home is Baldpate Mountain (highest point in Mercer County!). South Mountain Reservation, sporting hilltop views of the Newark and NY skylines, sounds interesting.

But my daughter and I decided to head up to the Belle Mead Coop for poultry feed and then over to the Sourland Mountain Preserve.

There you find a large parking lot, a pond, a kiosk that actually has a replenished supply of maps, and a trail up into boulder land. Boulders large and small, to climb up or step around, boulders that beg to be sat upon, the better to gaze out upon the others.

The trees, too, like to sit upon the rocks, having little choice, there not being much actual soil.

When first seen, I thought this scene would be rare, but trees are growing upon rocks everywhere.

Black birches are the ones most taken with the boulders.

My daughter caught this incendiary scene,

just before we reached a linear meadow ablaze with Bidens.

I had read of the Roaring Rocks, and we finally found them at the far end of the five mile trail, roaring very quietly. Maybe they roar more loudly when the stream that flows underneath them is swelled by rains. Even without sound effects, they are impressive, and look fun to climb upon if you don't have a small dog that could disappear at any moment into the cracks between them.

On the way back, a sugar maple bent by age and circumstance. Sugar maples in particular gain character with age, reminding me somehow of a pipe-smoking english professor from college days.

I told my daughter that this polka dot boulder field reminded me of 101 Dalmatians. She said it looked more like zombies to her. What will the next generation see?

The linear meadow offered a shortcut back to the parking lot. Most of these right of ways that criss-cross New Jersey, like the one that crosses the Princeton Ridge, are becoming monocultures of mugwort and/or Sericea lespedeza, but this one still has some diversity,

with at least two kinds of native bushclover that I've never seen in Princeton, some towering sunflowers,

Indian grass bending towards the pathway, and the great yellow sea of Bidens.

The walk lasted four hours, though there were cutbacks if we had wanted to shorten it. Just a twenty minute drive, and for anyone who walks the ridge in Princeton alot, whether in Witherspoon Woods, Woodfield Reservation, or Herrontown Woods, the Sourland Mountains Preserve offers many parallels, some new twists, and a fine zigging and zagging through bulked up boulders.