Sunday, March 28, 2021
Sunday, March 21, 2021
This past Thursday, March 18, I received a phone call from Fairfax Hutter with news that the amphibians would be migrating that night. A long spell of dry weather had held the frogs and salamanders back. Now, with rain and temperatures in the 40s, they would be moving in large numbers towards vernal pools to breed. Fairfax was headed out to the Howell History Farm area to protect amphibians crossing the road, but she was hoping I could grab a reflective vest and flashlight and walk along Herrontown Road. Directing traffic would have required coordination with the police, and lacking the necessary equipment, I didn't get out there until Saturday morning, to see if what sort of traffic control could be warranted in the future.
Sunday, December 20, 2020
Earlier in the fall my friend Gail reported that her backyard was getting torn up this year--something that had never happened before. One interesting clue as to why this was happening now and not before was the death of three ash trees just across the fenceline in the neighbor's yard. This year, multiple experiences have made clear for me the dramatic impact active trees have on soil moisture. Trails at Herrontown Woods dried up as soon as the trees and shrubs leafed out and began drawing moisture from the ground. The death of many ash trees in Princeton is changing soil conditions, allowing sun to warm the ground and water from rains to remain in the soil longer. The dead tree roots are also a food source for underground organisms.
I claim no expertise on which animal is doing the damage, nor on how to stop them. Here's an organic approach. The internet puts the blame mostly on raccoons and foxes, as they search for grubs and earthworms. Both have upped their game in Princeton in recent years. That, along with heavier rains, warmer weather, and the loss of trees could be leading to more digging. Skunks also dig, but are more precise in their digging, making smaller holes that limit damage to the lawn. The photo below is from another homeowner's lawn near my house. This damage was noticed only a couple weeks ago, late in the fall.
Tuesday, January 07, 2020
But because many readers are no doubt wondering, "Just how do you bathe a tortoise?," I will start with that.
I had stopped by for a kitchen table chat with my friend Mia when she disappeared into the living room and soon reemerged with a reptile, specifically a tortoise, and even more specifically a sulcata tortoise. She announced that it was a gift and she was in the process of house-training this new pet, then proceeded to set it in a tray in the kitchen sink and add a little water.
Some "why's" came to mind, in reverse order. Why water for a desert-dwelling creature? And, more fundamentally, why a tortoise?
My notion of tortoise care was formed long ago, in that primitive, information-deprived pre-internet era, while watching a film clip in which a hibernating tortoise was placed in a drawer, there to remain for a month or two until it awoke. I had had some bad experiences living with people who didn't take good care of their pets, so the idea of a pet one could leave for long periods in a drawer sounded appealing. A tortoise seemed to me a hybrid between the elemental and the biological--part rock, part animal.
All those misperceptions quickly evaporated as Mia lovingly gave the tortoise a rinse. She said it loves to have water poured on its belly, and I have to admit, it did look very happy as she held it under the faucet.
At this juncture, a photo of the tortoise getting that wonderful belly splash in loving hands would be fitting, but the scientist in me took over when she pointed to evidence that the house training is going well. Tortoise pee is more solid than liquid, owing of course to the desert dwelling tortoise's need to conserve water.
A sulcata tortoise can live up to 100 years and slowly grow beyond 100 pounds. Somehow I think Mia's up to the task.
She later sent me a link to a study showing that tortoises have good memories. This makes sense from multiple angles. What are 100 years good for if knowledge doesn't accumulate, and if one's going to move slowly, it's best to have a good memory for worthy destinations.
Another friend, Julie, who lives at the edge of Herrontown Woods, has an uncanny ability to raise abandoned animals. She hand-fed this baby rabbit a couple years ago for as long as it took to make it strong enough to return to the wild. Just from watching the interaction, it was clear there was a special connection--part instinct, part knowledge, part affection--that would insure better results than I could ever attain.
More recently, another friend, Tineke, offered us a small clinic on how to use a worm bin to make your food scraps into rich fertilizer. It would be a stretch to call these worms pets, but the same emotions support the insights and consistent, timely actions that insure success.
Love for a pet or a garden or even an inanimate building is like a beacon, a memory prompter, a sleuth. You can tell if someone is paying attention, remembering when to water, or digging for an answer when something goes wrong.
That's the sort of hardwired caring I wish could be bottled and distributed widely in this new decade.
Sunday, December 29, 2019
Though I can talk to someone for an hour and not notice what they are wearing, I do notice things in nature. Take this rock for instance, which was sitting unassumingly next to the sidewalk near the back entrance of the local supermarket. I noticed the rock, and then noticed that it wasn't a rock, really, but instead was made of plastic and just happened to be the size of those electronic rat traps you might see in NY alleyways. Sure enough, a closer look revealed round entry points of the appropriate size cut in the plastic.
Then a few days later, a supermarket employee was outside near the "rock", and I mentioned it to him. That was enough to get him talking about a chipmunk that lives in the bushes there. He obviously was fond of this chipmunk, showed me the hole in the ground into which he'd seen it disappear. He hoped it was smart enough to avoid the trap. "Rats may be smarter than chipmunks," I said, realizing I wasn't exactly feeding the wellsprings of hope.
He also told me that he'd seen the chipmunk duck into the store when the doors first open, snatch whatever it could find on the floor behind a counter, and then make it's escape to enjoy its gleanings back in its own private chipmunk preserve in the courtyard. It was a darling story of a cute and enterprising rodent, but might also explain the presence of the "rock."
On my next visit, I noticed pieces of bread scattered in the small plaza near the trap, too numerous to be accidental. In the photo, the bread crumbs are in the foreground, while the trap is a tiny speck across the sidewalk in the background.
The photo nicely captures the opposite views of chipmunks that can be found in my own family. Though I don't remember ever feeding them, I grew up loving chipmunks--their striped good looks, their perky manner and upbeat chirp, the comic but highly utilitarian way they'd stuff nuts into their cheeks. All through the intervening years, I have yet to be wronged by a chipmunk, and have cheered their periodic arrival in the yard--though a vulnerability to local predators may explain why they never seem to sustain a presence.
So it was a surprise to hear my sister in Cleveland describe them as the bane of her vegetable garden. Have Cleveland chipmunks gone rogue? Or might it be that her low opinion of chipmunks is due to a lack of sufficient predators to keep their numbers in check? Interesting to contemplate a predator being the guardian of a prey's reputation.
When it comes to liking or not liking, whether in nature or society, both the judge and the judged can easily get trapped. One positive trait can make people ignore all the negatives, and one negative trait can overshadow all the positives. Emotion seeks purity--a definitive judgement up or down--even as good and evil become increasingly intermixed. When it comes to chipmunks, for now I'm content to, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." I'll carry opposing ideas like a chipmunk carries nuts bulging in its cheeks, to be stored as future food for thought.
Tuesday, December 17, 2019
That sad, raggedly fox moving on down the trail, seemingly resigned to its fate, brought back memories of this photo sent to me years back by Christy and Brian Nann, taken at Greenway Meadows. The Mercer County Wildlife Center confirmed for me that it was a red fox stripped of fur by mange, with little chance of survival.
Typing "mange" into the search box for this blog, I was not surprised to find that the photo was taken in late 2008, roughly ten years ago.
That eleven year gap in sightings of mange may not be a matter of chance. Somewhere along the way, growing up in small town Wisconsin or reading wildlife magazines, I learned that foxes and their prey go through a ten year population cycle. There's a boom and then there's a bust.
In recent years, we've been witnessing the boom. Foxes have been flourishing in Princeton, moving up stream corridors into new urban areas. Certainly they've been making their presence known in our neighborhood. My wakeup call came two years ago, when a fox ambushed two of our last three chickens, consuming one and leaving the other stashed under a neighbor's bush for a future meal. Clearly, the local predators were upping their game. Earlier this year, during dogwalks at dusk, I would occasionally see a fox trotting confidently down the middle of the street before ducking behind a house. Late at night, I'd hear their baleful bark in our driveway. A few blocks away, a fox family had a large litter under a neighbor's porch, causing some controversy as to what if anything should be done. The most impressive sighting came last winter, when I was standing in the Herrontown Woods parking lot. Across the stream, a beautiful specimen was moving stealthily through the woods. It paused and went into a crouch, then pounced, penetrating through the few inches of snow with uncanny precision, then trotted off with a rodent in its mouth.
There's logic to the boom, and logic to the bust that may now be underway. When predators are few, rabbits and rodents increase, providing foxes with an abundant food source. Then, as the fox numbers increase, their skillful predation continues taking a toll on their food supply until the foxes find themselves with little to eat. The too numerous foxes begin to starve, and their weakening immune systems make them vulnerable to the burrowing mites that cause mange. The fox population crashes, the rabbits and rodents rebound, and the cycle begins anew. The internet is full of stories of this boom and bust, from Colorado to one out of Vermont that gives an especially detailed description of the biology behind the afflicted fox's misery. The Vermont post suggests that mange can be an isolated event, but also tells of how mange once precipitated a 95% drop in the fox population in a city in the UK.
There are lots of questions to ask. Has the boom cycle in foxes reduced Princeton's population of rats? Might it explain why there seem to be fewer squirrels around than in past years? Might predation of mice be expected to reduce the prevalence of ticks and lyme disease? Is there a ten year ebb and flow to fox raids on chicken coops?
Though rodents can survive a boom in the red fox population, less certain is the resilience of ground-nesting birds on the Jersey shore, like the endangered plover. Red foxes, it turns out, were introduced from Europe. The native gray foxes tend to stay deeper in the forest, and so the red foxes may pose a threat in more open habitat that the shorebirds have not evolved to defend themselves against.
To protect the birds, the state Division of Fish and Wildlife has been culling the red fox population along the shore. Residents outraged by the intentional killing of such beautiful animals managed to get 80,000 signatures on a petition demanding the state's trapping program end. If the petitioners were successful, however, the results might not be exactly humane. When an unfettered population of foxes ran out of endangered shorebirds and other prey to eat, it could succumb to mange--a painful and deadly condition that makes the government's trapping program look highly humane by comparison.
Of course, no enlightened fox is going to rise up and warn its brethren to have smaller litters in order to sustain adequate prey and avoid the epidemic of mange. It is humans who have that gift of foresight and sophisticated communication that can forestall calamity, and yet our special gifts are being spent not to limit our own boom and bust cycle--played out over centuries rather than decades--but to create the conditions for a bust of such global proportions that no life form will remain untouched. Whether it's CO2 or foxes, we live in an era when superficial views of nature predominate, when the misplaced sympathies of 80,000 people can be manipulated to oppose the one government action that could protect both the endangered birds and the foxes from calamity.
This is the journey of thought, back to my youth and forward to a shared future, that can spring from a chance sighting of a forlorn fox along a wooded trail.
Some useful links:
Princeton's Animal Control officer
Mercer County Wildlife Center
From what I've read, mange in foxes poses little risk to people or pets.
Thursday, May 23, 2019
I recently met with DR Greenway's Cindy Taylor to discuss management of 4.5 acres of farmland preserved by Mercer County. The land is strategically located next to Veblen House and Herrontown Woods, near the corner of Snowden Lane and Herrontown Road. It seemed destined to be added to Herrontown Woods, but was not included in last year's transfer of Herrontown Woods from county to town ownership.
While walking the property we nearly stepped on a couple snakes out mating in their field. From what I've heard and read, there are venemous snakes in northern and southern New Jersey, but not here in the central region. This one, or two, look like something a botanist would call a garter snake. I hope they didn't mind too much our human curiosity.
Up until a couple years ago the land was owned by John Powell, who was manager of the Weller farm before it became Smoyer Park. Each year on his six remaining acres of pasture, John would grow a couple head of cattle, a picturesque reminder of when Jac Weller had a real farm across the road, with bulls that would occasionally escape, prompting a surprised neighbor to call the farm to report that there was a bull in the backyard.
The preserved land includes a small pond that's filled in spring with spring peepers.
The 4.5 preserved acres are as close to a clean slate as we get in Princeton. Do we keep it as pasture with mostly nonnative grasses? Or do we shift it to native prairie grasses and wet meadow wildflowers? Periodic mowing would be needed in either case. Letting it grow up in trees would reduce even further the places where shade-intolerant plant species can grow. Or can it still perform some farm-like function? I showed NOFA-NJ (Northeast Organic Farmers' Association) the site years ago, including the adjacent farmhouse, without success.
Meanwhile, we continue our travel through the 21st century. Ash trees on the neighbor's property succumb to Emerald Ash Borer,
while garter snakes know what to do with a field, even if we do not.
Sunday, April 21, 2019
This morning, though, what caught my eye was a tussling of squirrels high up in the canopy. From a distance, there appeared to be two, and they appeared to be mating. It was the most daredevilish style of romance, with a tussle high up, then one squirrel in free fall for ten feet before catching hold and dashing right back up for more. Then both fell, for what looked like twenty feet, miraculously catching their fall on a lower limb and again dashing back up to a higher spot to continue what was either wrestling or mating, or both. Passion and altitude would not seem a good mix, yet the squirrels looked ready to risk all, and in the process demonstrated the depth of their acrobatic brilliance.
Tuesday, July 10, 2018
What's been eating our lilies on busy Harrison Street?! Buds on the lilies lining our front walk had generated considerable anticipation in the household, until they disappeared overnight. We arrived in Princeton a few years after deer began being professionally culled in 2000. Back then, we'd see herds of deer wandering down Murray Ave, or even main roads like Harrison Street.
Though Mayor Marchand took a lot of heat for culling deer, she and township council stuck to their principles, and the result has been dramatically reduced carnage on the roadways, venison for food kitchens, and a rebound of the native flora in local nature preserves. The remaining deer are better fed, finding in the wild a greater abundance of their preferred foods.
Another benefit has been reduced damage to gardens. Our garden had prospered deer-free for years, until one showed up in the backyard over the winter. Evidence suggests there have been visits since then, and now our front yard's centralized setting along Harrison Street is proving no guarantee of safety from their unsolicited landscape services.
All of which prompted an inquiry into how the town's deer culling has been going lately. The temporary lack of an animal control officer and the increasingly quirky climate contributed to a relatively unsuccessful deer cull in the winter of 2016-17. This past winter, however, they were very successful with the culling. According to this update from council member Heather Howard:
"Deer hunt was much more successful this year - in part because of colder weather. This year, 196 deer were harvested, as compared to 63 last year. Also, initial analysis of traffic data shows that deer-related motor vehicle accidents were down.
Looking ahead to next year's hunt, we are looking for new areas to expand the hunt. There have been an increase in deer complaints in the Riverside neighborhood, which is a hard neighborhood to find suitable areas for hunting, because there are no public properties and private lots tend to be smaller.
Looking ahead to next year's hunt, we hope to have our annual contract for bow hunting on the Council's agenda by the end of the summer, so they can start with the hunting season in September."It's important to emphasize that bow hunting is not adequate to control deer numbers. To restore the ecological balance lost when we extirpated the natural predators of deer long ago, it's necessary to have professional hunters who can operate safely in our preserves, to augment what the bow hunters are able to do. One comforting thought is that the deer have lived quality, free-range lives, unlike so many of the animals we eat.
How this relates to the lost lilies in the front yard? Heather's mention of increasing deer complaints in the Riverside neighborhood, along with the surprising appearance of deer in our yard despite deer culling, might suggest that the deer that are eluding the culling are those that spend more time in the densely populated neighborhoods. It's a theory that will be tested by time, and lilies all over town.
If a truck passed over me while I was crossing the road, I'd probably pee in my shell, too. That's what it looks like happened here, having encountered the turtle on that small university road on the West Windsor side of Lake Carnegie, just after a truck had passed over it.
Just one more insult for a turtle to endure. It refused to tell me which side of the road it preferred to be on, so I put it on the canal side, where the habitat is, and hoped for the best.
Thursday, June 21, 2018
Young ducks are great for taking on nature hikes, imprinted as they are on their human caretaker. We had one come hiking up the trail recently to the Veblen House grounds while we were working on preparation for this Sunday's Veblen birthday gathering (come if you can).
A writeup on the duck, a magpie, is at this link.
Thursday, March 29, 2018
My first guess was a corn snake, but we needed more than a guess. I sent the photo to my friend Perry in Durham, NC, where I used to see copperheads now and then in my old stomping grounds along Ellerbe Creek, their heads above water, gazing upstream. He in turn sent it to his friend and Duke University biologist, Ron Grunwald.
The answer came quickly: Eastern milk snake, nonvenomous. They're said to be fairly common. According to the wikipedia page, they are a kind of king snake that can be found in various habitats, including rocky slopes (the Princeton Ridge), and also in barns. Their presence in barns may be the reason a myth arose that they suck milk from cows, which anyone who knows snakes and cows will agree is udderly ridiculous.
Rob was relieved, but the episode begged the question: Are there venomous snakes in New Jersey? The answer to that came very fast, when up popped the website for Conserve Wildlife Federation of NJ, and a post on the northern copperhead (affectionately known among herpetologists as Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen). For anyone thinking of copperheads as a southern species, it's a surprise to learn that the northern copperhead's range actually begins north of Princeton, extending from the Sourlands up through northern NJ.
The range of the one other venomous snake in New Jersey, the timber rattlesnake, conveniently avoids Princeton, with populations both north and south. The scientific name for this snake is Crotalus horridus horridus, which seems unscientifically judgemental.
For the curious, there's a nice-looking pamphlet of New Jersey snakes at this link.
Thanks to Rob for sending the photo, and to Ron for the identification. Though the snake may well have been doing a fine job limiting the number of mice and camel crickets in his basement, Rob was understandably prompted nonetheless to reaffix the screen that had fallen off a drain pipe leading from his basement to the great outdoors.
Wednesday, March 15, 2017
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.
Friday, March 03, 2017
Saturday, February 18, 2017
Thursday, February 02, 2017
Observing all the different uses our free-range chickens put their wings and feathers to has led this week to some speculation about how flight evolved. Chickens are particularly instructive in that they are not capable of full-fledged flight. They are, however, capable of wing-assisted hops--to reach the top of a fence, or to flutter upwards from branch to branch as they climb to their favorite roosting spot. And in the morning, when they descend, they use their wings to break their fall to the ground. Back when we were picking the chickens up and holding them, it was a delight, and convenient, to just toss them into the air and let them flutter softly down.
Their wings provide adjustable warmth, fluffed to varying degrees to match the cold of a particular night. That capacity to manipulate their feathers for warmth translates well to any micro-adjustments feathers make to optimize flight. As mentioned in a post describing a hawk attack, the strong quills of a chicken's wings also provide an incredibly light-weight, multi-layered armor, any portion of which can be shed so that a predator, thinking it has a firm grasp on the chicken, finds itself instead holding only a feather or two while the chicken escapes. That multilayered defense serves as well to shed the rain. Feathers also are mobilized for a powerful display, spreadable to make the chicken look bigger to potential predators, or more attractive to a potential mate.
After observing a chicken, flight can seem like an afterthought--a bit of serendipity that came to pass after wings and feathers gradually developed for a host of other purposes, each adaptive use enabling another in a positive feedback loop that ultimately led to the purity of flight.
Monday, January 30, 2017
Thanks to Melinda Varian for sending her husband Lee's photos of a loon that's been visiting Carnegie Lake. "We were standing on the footbridge that goes across where the (Millstone) river goes under the canal into the lake. A man we talked with said that he has been seeing it in the lake for about a week."
Another local birder, Laurie Larson, who keeps tabs on bird populations, said she could recall "one or two records over 30 years. It certainly is not “common,” although it is a Common Loon! I’m glad it’s finding Princeton hospitable."
One has to be quick to photograph a loon. A more common shot catches the tail feathers as it dives in search of a meal.
For fun facts about loons, check out this Cornel site, which explains that loons have solid bones rather than hollow, in order to be heavy enough to hunt effectively underwater. As a result, "Loons are like airplanes in that they need a runway for takeoff. In the case of loons, they need from 30 yards up to a quarter-mile (depending on the wind) for flapping their wings and running across the top of the water in order to gain enough speed for lift-off."
Because of this need for a long aquatic runway, loons can get stranded in small ponds, or on wet pavement that they mistakenly land on, thinking it to be water. Our visiting loon chose its lake well, as Laurie explains: "Fortunately if the weather freezes up, there’s plenty of water for the long wind-up and take-off that loons need, and this one can head for Cape May."
Update: It's a bit disjointed in this video to see all the scenes packed together, but loons play a starring role with Kathryn Hepburn and Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond.