Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Miniature Watersheds in Princeton

Spring snow melt is a good time to take note of all the miniature watersheds in Princeton. A great river like the Mississippi drains vast regions of the U.S., while this little rivulet drains the front lawn of Westminster Choir College. Instead of emptying into the ocean, it disappears down a drain that pipes the water into Harry's Brook, which in turn feeds into Carnegie Lake. Westminster's south lawn could be thought of as a subwatershed of Harry's Brook, which is a subwatershed of the Millstone River that heads east, merging with the Raritan before reaching the Atlantic Ocean.

Our drinking water comes from the confluence of the Raritan and Millstone Rivers, so the water draining off this lawn takes a journey that could well lead it 20 miles downstream and into the water treatment plant, for a return trip to Princeton's faucets. This is one of the ways that Princeton's countless miniature watersheds are connected to our lives.

Your backyard is part of a watershed, large or small, and it can be fun to explore where the water comes from that flows through our yards. Some comes from our roofs, and the neighbors' roofs, but patterns in the snow suggest another source.

For instance, the channel for my miniature branch of Harry's Brook, which can be seen as a blue line on old maps, has long since been erased by backyard lawns. Some of the houses were actually built where the stream used to flow, so it now expresses itself by seeping into basements, then getting "daylighted" by sump pumps, beginning in a rental four houses up from us.

The water being discharged from basements is warm enough to melt the snow and show the pattern of flow that would otherwise be hard to see in a lawn.

In the next house down, another sump pump adds its share,

and further down the gentle slope, two more sump pumps contribute flow. Most of it seeps into the ground,

but some may reach our backyard, keeping it moister than it would be otherwise, and sustaining a mini-pond where the resident ducks can swim and clean their feathers.

Friday, March 07, 2014

The Hungry Hawk Pays a Visit

My daughter called to me yesterday from the family room that looks out on our backyard. She had just seen a hawk swoop down on our freely ranging ducks and chickens. Only the loud complaints of the largest duck, it seems, caused the hawk to veer back up to a nearby tree. In this dreary late winter time of tired snow and lingering chill, it's not surprising this beautiful, unsubsidized red tailed hawk, living by its wits through lean times, would take an interest in our backyard fowl.

Our first impulse, seeing it posing so nobly on distant tree branch, peering with less than noble designs at our small flock, was to take a photo. There was time, particularly given that the objects of its desire had taken cover behind a thick tangle of brush in the back corner of the lot. Brush piles have their uses in the winter, when the landscape is otherwise stripped of hiding places.

We went out into the yard expecting the hawk to fly away. Instead, and despite its clearly diminished prospects, it continued to look down at us, apparently having no better place to go. Finally it flew off and the runner duck and Buttons the chicken re-emerged from behind the woodpile.

And who do we have to thank for our birds' continued survival in a world of very hungry hawks? Why, it's the very clumsy but very brave Pekin "guard duck", with the keen eye and a voluminous quack she's not afraid to use when it is most needed.

Her quack has had no effect on the snow, however, which lingers despite the ducks' clear preference for a more liquid world.

We had another scare a few weeks ago when Buttons disappeared without a trace. Had a raccoon snatched her when we left the coop door open too late one evening? Strange that there were no feathers scattered around to indicate a struggle. It took me a couple days to break the news to my daughter, who went outside, poked around, and found that the chicken had somehow gotten trapped under the plastic cover on the bales of bedding straw. She had survived on a diet of snow until she was discovered.

Though the ducks clearly miss taking baths in the backyard miniponds, the birds have done remarkably well through a difficult winter, without any supplementary heat. The chickens stopped laying for a month or two during the shortest days, but then resumed, and the ducks continue laying eggs like clockwork, one a day, each, oblivious of day length, cold, and the lack of anything beyond chicken feed.