Thursday, March 30, 2017

Keeping the Towpath Nature Loop Keeping On

After the improbably hot days of February, the slow fading of March snows back into the ground in lingering cold are reminiscent of childhood winters in Wisconsin. Following the snowbound months came a long, slow thaw, a gradual yielding of winter's icy grip that quickened my step and made me reach for my golf bag, to get in early practice on Yerkes Observatory grounds. Often, the ball's trajectory sent it into a lingering snowdrift. I would extrapolate from the entry hole where the ball might be hiding its white in white.

From the joy of that slow thawing may have grown a pleasure in incrementalism, which has informed much of the habitat restoration work I do in town. The nature loop that branches off the towpath along the DR Canal near Harrison St. has been getting some incremental upkeep lately. Alerted by the DR Canal State Park ranger that they would soon do the annual mowing of the field the trail winds through, I went out and marked the elderberry bushes with bright pink tape. The idea is that the mowing crew will steer clear of the marks, allowing the elderberries to bloom and have berries. As the photo shows, though, the invasive porcelainberry and Japanese honeysuckle vines are using some of the elderberries to climb up and grab the sunlight.

How, then, to let elderberries be elderberries, rather than mere superstructure for an overly rampant nonnative vine? The rampancy of the vine, as with many introduced species, comes from the lack of a countervailing force of consumption to curb their growth. In other words, nothing eats them. Incrementalism means first insuring the elderberries don't get mowed to the ground, then contemplating the next step to take. It might seem a bother to clamber through thorny brambles to mark elderberry bushes only to have them mobbed by vines, but growing up close to the land can make that steady spring thaw of optimism run deep in your blood.

The nature trail loop is a nice wide trail, between the canal and Lake Carnegie, maintained by the NJ state park staff.

Daffodils Down For the Count

This scene in our front yard, a couple weeks ago, takes me back to a drive down through Ohio one spring. We were driving to a jazz gig near Columbus, but what I remember is all the daffodils in people's frontyards along the road, their flowers pinned to the ground as if a hand were clutching their neck. Among spring flowers, daffodils can evoke the greatest range of emotion, from the cheer of their unfettered blooms to the utter despair of vanquished hopes when snow makes them pay dearly, or at least graphically, for their early spring optimism.

By contrast, the snow served to decorate the Wishing (the earth) Well in our frontyard. It's of original design and proudly placed there to demonstrate an alternative to loose piling of leaves in the street. The inner cylinder is a critter-proof place for kitchen food scraps, disguised by the leaves around them. As long as the leaves remain moist and the base of the corral is in contact with the soil below, the leaves will decompose over the summer without stirring, and provide rich compost in the fall.

Unlike the nearby daffodils, the optimism of a leaf corral cannot be toppled by a snowstorm.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Seeds for the Spreading

Hibiscus seedheads act like baseball mitts, catching snow in this winter-come-lately weather. There's been some seed collecting this past fall and winter for a couple projects of the Friends of Herrontown Woods. At Smoyer Park, we're partnering with the Princeton Rec. Dept. and Partners for Fish and Wildlife to convert a detention basin to a native wet meadow.

And at the Veblen House, Kurt Tazelaar has been restoring an area where Elizabeth Veblen likely had her daffodil nursery. Over the intervening fifty years, wisteria had spread from the house to climb the trees, obscure the fenceline and claim the sunlight in this woodland opening.

Both of these spots have a combination of wet ground and sun favorable for some favorite native wildflowers that could bring some color to the neighborhood in late summer.

Many of the seeds come from my backyard, which has become a contained riot of local genotypes of cutleaf coneflower,

wild senna,

ironweed, and many others. Leaving last year's stalks up until spring provides cover for our free-ranging chickens, food for the birds, and a superstructure for overwintering insects.

Here's a Eupatorium, with a name only a botanist could love--late-flowering thoroughwort--

and the clustered seeds of buttonbush.

Ironweed seeds have some beauty to them, leaning out over the DR Canal, which was the original source for most of these floodplain species that I've been spreading across Princeton over many years. The canal's sunny openings and lack of past farming provided a place these species could live to bloom another day.

One doesn't need to be near a stream to have floodplain habitat, as many yards around town have low ground that remains wet for long periods, and downspouts create miniature floods of water that can be made to linger in a raingarden. The more places these wildflowers grow in town, the more resilient is the overall population, not only of various wildflowers but also the pollinators that depend on them for food in late summer, when woodlands offer little nectar. Think of it as repopulating the local food desert, ecologically speaking.

Sometimes, seedheads find their way indoors, in this case, Hibiscus and Culver's Root. The Culver's root this seedhead comes from was bought, for lack of a local population.

The slow-release saltshaker-like capsules of Hibiscus moscheutos in early winter, before the seeds have been eaten or shaken out by the wind.

Some hearts a bustin' berries in autumn (Euonymus americanus). A favorite of the deer, only two wild populations of this native shrub have been found in Princeton, both at Herrontown Woods. Because deer find this shrub so delicious, fenced-in backyards become its best chance for reaching maturity.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Birthday Pea Planting Delayed

People like to plant peas on my birthday, not because it's my birthday, but because it's St. Patrick's Day. This year, due to conditions beyond our control, that planting will have to be delayed, putting in jeopardy all the good luck that comes with March 17. Since St. Patrick's Day cannot be extended, the least I can do is to extend my birthday indefinitely until the ground is sufficiently thawed, in order to bestow some residual measure of good luck upon this year's pea crop.

Thus far today, I've received birthday greetings from Google (I'm assuming that others' page doesn't look like this), a dental service I no longer use, and, oh, my dear friend who plants her peas on St. Patricks Day.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Winter Ant Sleuthing

The mystery of the winter ant infestation, which inspired last month's mini-essay "Did U Put the Ant in Cantaloupe?", has been solved. Their source discovered, a solution, adhering to the necessities of plot, was found, then lost, then found again.

It finally occurred to me, after days of coping with the wide ranging perambulations of odorous house ants in our kitchen, to track them back to their source. Surprisingly, or not, once one thinks about it, their two lane baseboard thoroughfare wound around the corner and over to a potted plant, specifically one that is put out on the patio during the summer. The ants had hitchhiked in with the plant, remained dormant through the winter, then responded to unknown cues to venture forth in February.

In a moment of brilliant insight, albeit delayed by at least a week from the first discovery of the ants in the kitchen, I determined that by filling the drain pan underneath the pot, I could create a moat that would render the ants pot-bound, as if in a medieval castle under siege, until their late spring return to the patio. Not completely trusting the pan to be waterproof, I substituted another, and in the process found a dense cluster of ants underneath the pot.

A closer look showed there to be several larger ants mixed in, supposed the queens.

Watering the plant stirred up hundreds of soil dwellers--a population that had burgeoned on the rich harvest of breadcrumbs, cantaloupe juice, and whatever else lingered for a few hours up in the distant highlands of the kitchen counter.

But the moat in the drain pan did it's job, and over the course of a few days the ants in the kitchen dwindled to a few homeless stragglers, then disappeared altogether.

With the counter free and clear, I had about a week to congratulate myself on my non-toxic solution before the ants showed up once again in the kitchen. I checked the moat. Water was still in place. What was going on? The 2-lane baseboard freeway was again busy with ants. This time, it led not back to the drain pan, but up the wall,

up the window frame,

then over along some trim to ... a leaf that was touching the wall! Someone, perhaps when company was expected, had pushed the plant back against the wall, and the ever curious, free-ranging ants had found a bridge from their medieval castle to a 21st century rich in unwiped kitchen counters.

For awhile after the plant was pulled away from the wall, the ants clustered at either end of the new divide, processing in some collective fashion the change from "Yes we can" to "No we can't". Within a day, however, the ants--far faster studies than we humans--had figured out that someone or some thing was determined to maintain division and confine them to medieval ways. For now, they'll have to live with whatever memories they might hold of last summer's patio.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Banana Peel Slips on Self

A banana peel was found badly beaten last week on a main walkway leading into Princeton University. Passersby seemed completely indifferent to its fate. Sure, banana peels have a certain reputation for playing practical jokes, but has anyone considered that prank from the banana peel's point of view? Tossed thoughtlessly onto the hard pavement, left destitute, far from the comforting warmth of a compost pile, stripped of any hope of returning to the good earth, a banana peel gains no sympathy but instead must endure the heavy tread of Man. Those humans, with their heads held high, their thoughts in the stars, yet to land are made insensate by thick soles, knowing not the tyranny their feet impose with every step. People, once fallen, can pick themselves up again. Not so a banana peel.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Mountain Lakes Photo Exhibit at Arts Council

Check out the reception and photo exhibit at the Arts Council of Princeton, Friday, March 10. I had the pleasure of being the first natural resource manager at Mountain Lakes Nature Preserve, which continues to be maintained by the nonprofit Friends of Princeton Open Space.

Friends of Princeton Open Space invites you to the opening reception for 

Mountain Lakes: A Lens on the Seasons

March 105:30-7:30PM
at the Arts Council of Princeton
102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton, NJ

Join us for the opening of our exhibition of Frank Sauer’s extraordinary color and black-and-white photographs of The Billy Johnson Mountain Lakes Nature Preserve, the heart of Princeton’s “Central Park.” Sauer captures the Preserve’s beauty in all four seasons and the diverse wonders of this beloved community park.

Exhibition Dates: March 10 – April 30, 2017

Sales of photographs will benefit the Friends of Princeton Open Space, which maintains and enhances the Preserve for all to enjoy.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Talk: Reading Nature's Signs, Mar. 21, 6pm, Labyrinth Bookstore

Sounds like a very interesting talk coming up at Labyrinth Bookstore on Nassau Street. Read below or follow the link to learn more.

Clues and Patterns from Puddles to the Sea
Tuesday, March 21st @ 6PM
We invite you to come to Labyrinth to learn how to read the sea like a Viking and interpret ponds like a Polynesian—with a little help from the “natural navigator”! 

In his eye-opening books The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs andThe Natural Navigator, Tristan Gooley helped readers reconnect with nature by finding direction from the trees, stars, clouds, and more. Now, he turns his attention to our most abundant—yet perhaps least understood—resource. Learn how to:

•Find north using puddles  •Forecast the weather from waves  •Decode the colors of ponds  •Spot dangerous water in the dark  •Decipher wave patterns on beaches, and more!

Tristan Gooley is the New York Times–bestselling author of The Natural NavigatorThe Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs, and How to Read Water. His passion for the subject of natural navigation stems from his hands-on experience. He has led expeditions in five continents, climbed mountains in Europe, Africa, and Asia, sailed small boats across oceans, and piloted small aircraft to Africa and the Arctic. He is the only living person to have both flown solo and sailed single-handedly across the Atlantic, and he is a Fellow of the Royal Institute of Navigation and the Royal Geographical Society. Prior to setting up The Natural Navigator School, Gooley gained extensive experience in the travel industry, and he is currently Vice Chairman of Trailfinders. 

Free and open to the public.

Labyrinth Books
122 Nassau Street
Princeton NJ 08542

Friday, March 03, 2017

Porcelainberry: the Vine that Ate Princeton

Here it's Friday of National Invasive Species Awareness Week, and nary a post about invasive species!

First, readers should be aware that there are contrarians out there, writing books, articles and opeds, trying to deny that invasive species are a big problem. It's fascinating to analyze their mental gymnastics and deceptions, which are similar to those used to deny the reality and danger of climate change. I've picked apart their faulty logic in posts that can be found at this link.

Now, on to our porcelainberry tour of Princeton. You won't find it in shady areas, where other invasives like stiltgrass, garlic mustard and winged euonymus thrive. Rather, porcelainberry threatens to smother all of those sunny openings and edges that shade-intolerant plants depend on for survival. Porcelainberry is related to our wild grape, but much more aggressive. Your first impression will be, "What lovely multicolored berries!"

Your second impression, as it climbs up the stems of your shrubs, like this elderberry, might be, "Oh, a little rambunctious, but those berries are so pretty!"

Your third impression, as it turns your yard or park into a monocultural topiary, will be more along the lines of, "OMG! HELP!" No, this is not kudzu growing along a freeway down south. This is porcelainberry winning a modern day Battle of Princeton, with stealth and persistence far beyond anything we distracted humans might muster.

This is what a nearby patch looks like in December, just down the road from the Princeton Battlefield, along Quaker Rd between Mercer and 206. Invasive vines and shrubs can seem less overwhelming in winter, which is actually a good time to remove them. In spring and summer, though, all that growth energy can be intimidating.

And this is what porcelainberry is doing to the sunnier portions of our lovely nature trail off the DR Canal Towpath near Harrison Street. The blackbirds may say hello to the berries, but it's bye bye to the diversity of native wildflowers underneath that foliar blanket.

Turns out porcelainberry's a soccer fan. Here it is in the cheap seats at Princeton University's Roberts Stadium, at one end of the field,

and at the other.

Here it is (light blue and pink berries) in that "second impression" stage, climbing over a honeysuckle shrub (red berries) at Quarry Park. Give it a few years and it may reach the "OMG" stage.

I haven't seen much of it in eastern Princeton yet, but we'd be smart to keep an eye out and remove it before the berries mature.

Otherwise, sunny edges everywhere will look like these hapless flowering dogwoods, planted at Princeton Battlefield in 1976 for the nation's bicentenial, and now struggling to survive beneath a spreading blanket of porcelainberry.

Note: You can help liberate the dogwoods from the porcelainberry and other vines on Saturday, April 1 at 1pm. I've been collaborating with the Princeton Battlefield Society on invasive species work for the past several years, and will be leading a group to preserve the dogwoods that line the field on the north side of Mercer Street.

Another group of volunteers will be continuing the multi-year effort to reduce the bamboo clones near the Clark House, which we're actually having considerable success without herbicide. 

For purposes of identification, here are a couple closeups of porcelainberry. The berries are distinctive, with different shades of blue, red and white.

The leaves are easily confused with wild grape. This photo shows how variable is the shape.

I hope everyone's having a happy National Invasive Species Awareness Week. We'll end with a short Q and A:
  • Are all nonnative plants invasive? No. Nonnative refers to origin. Invasive refers to behavior.
  • Why are invasive plants invasive? Oftentimes, it's because the native insects/deer, etc don't eat them, giving them a competitive advantage. To regain the balance we lost by introducing species that evolved elsewhere, people end up having to be the herbivores, wielding saws and loppers.
  • One nice thing about invasives? They get us out in the woods for workdays. 

A Thousand-Eyed Grackle

With the temperature reaching 74 on February 25, I looked out our back picture window to see that our usually peaceful backyard had come alive with motion. The lawn was astir with the hyper black-winged commotion of hundreds of grackles. Their iridescent necks flashed blues, greens and purples as each probed the ground for food, with not a second to lose. Five or six stalked about on the edge of the fillable-spillable minipond, angling for a sip of water. I grabbed a camera and crept towards the window, eager to document their spectacular numbers and energy. But even my barely perceptible movements were caught by one of a thousand eyes, and off they went in a flash, a winged unison where a moment before each had been absorbed in its own pursuit of food and water. They crowded the high branches of a nearby pin oak while somehow collectively plotting their next move. Had I seen 500 birds? Or had it been one bird with 500 mouths and 1000 wings?