Wednesday, February 28, 2018

More of Nature's Art in a Backyard Minipond

The highly gifted fillable-spillable backyard minipond that receives water from the roof created more art a couple nights back. I did the best I could to give it suitable framing.

This scale-like pattern seems to be an innovation, with morning sun tinging portions with gold. The scale pattern can be seen as a miniature version of the backward "L"'s in the image above.

The artist-in-residence is content with its humble dwelling, needing nothing more than an occasional rain to keep it full.

Those flat spaces between the crystalline lines are open water, and the whole pattern could be rotated in the bowl without breaking it.

Sunlight and rotation of the photo made for a jazzy effect.

Leaves collecting in the tub hint at collage or mixed media, and may add a subtle tinting to the water over time.

An hour later, the crystals had melted away, leaving open water. Thanks goes to Leo, our dog, for getting me out in the backyard first thing in the morning.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Waiting to Hear About Monarchs

For months, I've had a blog post in the draft folder, entitled "Monarch Rebound." That title reflected the encouraging increase in sightings of monarch butterflies in the Princeton area in 2017, and an encouraging report from Mexico on Oct. 30, as monarchs from all over the eastern U.S. began arriving at their overwintering site in the Sierra Madre mountains west of Mexico City. A Nov. 9 report also sounded upbeat, describing fall '17 as "the latest migration on record," though with large numbers of monarchs still lingering up in the northeastern U.S.

Hurricane Harvey's incredible deluge in Texas may have decimated butterfly populations in that region, but was early enough in the fall that it didn't coincide with the monarchs' migration south, which would funnel down through Texas several weeks later.

The number of monarch butterflies overwintering in Mexico is normally counted in December, after the monarchs have arrived and established their overwintering colonies. An excellent description of their overwintering behavior can be found at Monarch Joint Venture. Last year, the announcement of overwintering numbers came in early February. Numbers for the past two years were up from the all-time lows of the three years prior. With the high numbers of monarchs seen in the northeast this past fall, the population trajectory looked promising.

But the lack of an official count this late in February is unsettling. The Washington Post came out with an article in January reporting that the monarch numbers in Mexico are down, explaining that an unusually warm fall delayed migration south. High numbers were reported along the Atlantic coast flyways, but because migration was so delayed, the butterflies may not have made it to Mexico. And a Feb. 2 report on the west coast's population of monarchs, which overwinters along the coast of California, showed a small decline.

A big problem remains the massive agricultural use of glyphosate on "Roundup Ready" corn and soybeans, which has eliminated milkweed from farmland, particularly in the midwest. Herbicides are also used along roadsides, where just one pass can obliterate longstanding populations of native perennial wildflowers, including milkweed.

Frequent mowing to keep roadsides looking manicured also prevents wildflowers from blooming. Some states are realizing that roadside management could be used to assist monarchs. Reduced mowing not only reduces the burning of fossil fuels driving climate change, but also allows wildflowers to bloom, providing nectar to fuel the monarchs' migration south, assuming they're able to dodge cars and trucks at the same time.

Here's an example of common milkweed growing in an unmowed, unsprayed field next to Quaker Road in Princeton.

Farther out Quaker Road is a field that one fall had dozens of monarchs feasting on nectar from bright yellow tickseed sunflowers. An annual, they have mysteriously disappeared from the field in recent years, though goldenrod remains.

We've converted some detention basins from turf to native grasses/wildflowers in town. This and the many efforts by gardeners to plant milkweed and other wildflowers surely help. But even those of us who make an effort have little choice but to feed the radical changes in climate that pose the greatest threat. We are trapped, by politicians who refuse to take the necessary action against climate change that will finally ween the nation of a dependence on fossil fuels. Until then, nature will remain under invisible chemical attack, even by those of us who want so much to see it thrive.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Guanacos in the Patagonian Desert

It looks like a 2-headed mythical beast in this photo, but these are guanacos ("hwan-AH-ko") that roam the desert plains of Patagonia.

Camels evolved in what is now North America, then radiated out into other parts of the world. The original camels in North America went extinct some 10,000 years ago, perhaps suffering the double whammy of an ice age's constrictions and the arrival of Homo sapiens on the continent, but camels elsewhere in the world survived. In South America, they evolved into guanacos and vicugnas. These in turn were domesticated, becoming llamas and alpacas, respectively.

We chanced to see the guanacos while driving north from the glaciers of Calafate up to the hiking trails of El Chalten, on the Argentine side of Patagonia.
Given the large size of the group in the photo below, 20-30, these would be the young males who lack a harem of females. A smaller group would likely consist of an older, "alpha" male guarding a territory with his harem of several females and young. Gestation takes nearly a year, and then the young, called chulengos, remain with the family group for a year before being kicked out by the alpha male. At that point, the young females tend to join another harem, while the young males gather in these large groups, apparently roaming freely without any territory. 

We took photos from the seemingly endless fenceline that runs parallel to the road.

Here are some closeups taken by my daughter, Sofia. In the background are the foothills of the Andes.

One guanaco,

two guanacos,

three guanacos,


Five guanacos

and so on. Like their camelid counterparts in Africa, they need very little water, surviving mostly on morning dew and the water in the grasses, lichens and other scant desert forage. Being ruminants with three-chambered stomachs, they know what it means to chew one's cud, which for all of us several generations removed from farm life means food regurgitated from the stomach for further chewing. Acid reflux can conveniently be used as a weapon when they spit.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Scott McVay to Speak at StonyBrook-Millstone Watershed Center

Just heard that one of our most active and distinguished community members, Scott McVay, will be speaking this Sunday, Feb. 18, at the StonyBrook-Millstone Watershed Center. Scott is a font of fascinating stories, and "a published poet, scientific researcher, conservationist, and founding executive director of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation." He will be introduced by Emile DeVito, a force of nature in defense of New Jersey's nature. The program runs from 2-4pm.

More info at this link.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Lesser Rheas in Patagonia

We just got back from a trip to Argentina to see family. The trip included some adventures down in Patagonia, the land at the southern end of Argentina and Chile where the continent narrows. On Argentina's side of the Andes, the mountains cast a long rain shadow eastward that deprives the land of rain. The sparse shrubs, grass, and wildflowers are kept low not only by the lack of water, but also by powerful winds that punish any living thing that dares to show vertical ambitions.

I don't know where to begin with all the photos taken--this blog may turn into Patagonia Nature Notes for awhile--but the one below sets the scene, with big sky, big mountains, and broad expanses of mesas and plains. Look in the lower lefthand corner, and you'll see that we were lucky on the last day to encounter Patagonia's version of the ostrich, variously called avestruz, choique, nandu, or Rhea. During Darwin's travels in Patagonia in the 1830s, he heard from gauchos of the small flightless bird, and finally encountered them. These are lesser Rheas, the greater ones being a separate species that lives in the more verdant pampas to the north.

The larger bird in the photos is a male, they being the ones who take care of the young. The male makes the nest, incubates the eggs--as many as 50, laid by various females--then follows up by running a sort of Rhea daycare, every day being one long field trip.

This group had about eight young, following loosely along as the male looked for a spot to duck under the fence meant to keep sheep from straying onto the road.

Couldn't find information about what the females and other males do while one male is taking care of all the young.