Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Giant in the Backyard

There are a number of very tall wildflowers that thrive in sunny, wet ground. Cutleaf coneflower can grow to ten feet. Joe-pye-weed, late-flowering thoroughwort and native sunflowers can reach impressive heights in late summer. But one plant is already towering over me in the backyard.

In the photo is the growing tip of Tall Meadow Rue (Thalictrum pubescens), which, growing at the rate of 2 inches a day this spring, has now reached a height of seven feet, with no sign of stopping.

Tall meadow rue plays a role that is complementary to the boneset described in detail last July. Both grow into vegetative high-rises topped by masses of white flowers that attract a surprising diversity of insect life, with meadow rue doing its work early in the season, and boneset reaching maturity in mid-summer.

Even before flowering, the meadow rue is serving as substrate for the life cycles of the local insect community.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Maple Seed Sprouting

These seeds were trying to sprout in a planting tray. Maples manufacture an elegant device for propagating themselves--a so-called "samara" that is part seed, part wing. The wings catch the air in such a way as to rotate like a helicopter, slowing their fall and allowing the wind to carry them some distance away from the parent tree.

The photo shows three stages, progressing from left to right. The seed sends out a root, then its first leaves--cotyledons--expand and turn green, then it forms its first pair of "true leaves", which have the classic maple leaf shape.

Snowbells in May

Spring flowers have faded, summer has yet to begin, but one small tree on Snowden Lane is filling the void. Japanese Snowbell (Styrax japonica) is showy in a private way, aiming its blooms downward. The second photo was taken looking up from underneath the tree.

There's a native Styrax that grows in the southeast U.S.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Tulips from a Tree

If you're having trouble getting water from a stone, try getting tulips from a tree. It's a lot easier, in fact hard to avoid if you have a tulip poplar growing nearby. Among all the maple seeds spinning to earth these days are a few tulip-shaped flowers from what scientists affectionately call Liriodendron tulipifera, a native closely related to magnolias. It's usually so tall that you only see the flowers after they've fallen from the vaulted canopy, but I noticed a specimen on Maple Street with some low branches laden with flowers.

Other trees blooming are the red buckeye,

the horsechestnut (the photo shows a large specimen on Ewing), and black locusts. You may also see some fringe trees in bloom, a beautiful native that's more like a large shrub.

Monday, May 11, 2009

How To Recycle a Snapping Turtle

Will they take this curbside? Saturday, a few hours before the baby owl plopped down into our garden from above, our dog was heard barking persistently near the neighbor's fence. I thought it must be someone's cat or dog that had roused Leo to such passion, but no. The snapping turtle that had been showing up in our minipond periodically over the last couple years (see April 22 post) had apparently decided to move on up the valley and got stymied by the fence.

We decided to help it on its way, and so coaxed it into a recycling bin. Mr. Turtle headed first to the science teacher at Little Brook, who promised to release it the next day into a local waterway after a day's service in show and tell.

This here's turtle country! The view is downstream, where once a tributary of Harry's Brook flowed, before it got buried beneath houses. The largish snapping turtle had been making do with a pond that could get as small as three feet across and two feet deep in a summer drought.

A Baby Screech Owl in the Garden

Update, July 28, 2020, 5am: The lovely, trilling call of a screech owl is coming from the same tree from which the baby fell eleven years ago. If screech owls live on average 14 years, the screech owl singing in the predawn could be this baby taken to the Wildlife Center in 2009.

Saturday evening, just before dark, my daughter was amazed to find a baby owl in the garden. I had installed miniponds and native plant habitat in the backyard in part to attract wildlife, but this was totally unexpected. Not knowing what else to do, we put it in a shoe box with some mulch for bedding and brought it inside where it would at least be warm for the night. I did some internet research, and also put a call in to the Mercer County Wildlife Center. Internet sources suggested putting it back in the nest, or at least putting it back where we'd found it and waiting to see if the parent comes to retrieve it. Neither of these seemed practical in the dark.

The next morning, a woman named Nicole at the Wildlife Center called back, and recommended taking it in to see if it had gotten injured by the fall.

At this point, I went outside to see where it might have fallen from. Sure enough, the big silver maple in the backyard had a roomy hole about 25 feet up, directly above where my daughter had found the baby.

Wishing to confirm that the hole had a nest, I raised a long bamboo pole up and gave the hole a tap. Out sprung an adult owl, surprisingly small, with two tufts of feathers on its head. It perched briefly on a limb before flying off. In its place came a raucous gathering of birds--a catbird, a robin, a bluejay, and some others--all with strong opinions about there being an owl in "my" backyard.

Later in the morning, while at Mountain Lakes Preserve, I ran into the Princeton professor Stephen Pacala, who said it was likely a screech owl. While he was at it, being an international authority on climate change, he answered a few of my lingering questions about that issue.

Later in the day, hopefully not having taken too much of our sweet time about it, we delivered the baby owl to the Wildlife Center, down along the Delaware River, not far from Lambertville. Nicole, reporting that the owl was cold and had a minor injury below its wing, immediately put it in an incubator. They would feed it "pinkies", which are baby mice, and if it survived and grew it would be put with an adult screech owl--essentially a foster parent from which it could learn how to call and how to eat. They would then release it in Princeton when it was strong enough to survive in the urban wilds.

Though my daughters had given it names--Owlie and Bobo--the Wildlife Center gave it a new designation, Case #2009-327 . We are welcome to call and ask how it's doing. says that screech owls like riparian woods along streams and wetlands .... and woodlands near marshes, meadows, and fields. A tree overlooking a series of backyard miniponds must have made the screech owl pair feel right at home.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Workdays this Weekend, and Thanks

Forgot to post this earlier:

Workday at Mountain Lake, this coming Sunday, May 10, at 10am. We'll be giving Mother Earth a brunch of her favorite wildflowers. This may conflict with some annual rituals, but it's what my schedule allows. There are more plants to get in the ground, and it's also a good time to be pulling garlic mustard. Shovels, trowels, gloves, boots, loppers--all useful. Meet at Mountain Lakes House, 57 Mountain Ave. You can drive up the driveway and park in the lot just before the house.

Workday at Little Brook Elementary School, Saturday, May 9, 10am. This is part of the school's annual cleanup of the grounds. There's a nice creek-fed wetland area that needs some removal of exotics and planting of natives. Same tools as above, if you have them.

Projects for individuals: If you'd like to help out whenever you have some free time, there are some individual or small group projects that are timely at Mountain Lakes. One is pulling garlic mustard along the driveway. It's blooming now, so is easy to identify. Another is pulling the small bush honeysuckles in the WHIP restoration area, just upstream of the lakes. These are the legacy of some very large invasive honeysuckles that were cut down last year but had seeded hither and yon. They pull very easily in this wet weather. Contact me if you have an hour or two over the next two weeks.

THANKS! to Brownlee, Steve Carson, Jamie and her children Anthony and Elizabeth, Christine Zeppenfeld and her son and daughter, and Annarie and her son, for all their help this past Saturday planting natives we grew in the FOPOS greenhouse. Christine teaches science at Princeton Junior School, and Steve C. teaches science at JW Middle School. The weather was misty moisty--perfect for planting--and the kids had a good time helping out, chasing frogs, and exploring.

Princeton Cares Helps Restore Habitat

A group of Princeton Cares volunteers--this time 9th grade boys from Princeton Day School and Hun School--returned to Mountain Lakes Preserve to do more removal of invasives and planting of natives. Last year, they planted bottlebrush grass. This year, they pulled out some honeysuckle shrubs, then planted mayapples in an area close to the house. Their morning work done, the kids then headed off to do other good deeds in the community.

The mayapples looked droopy in the sun, and the boys had wondered if the plants would survive. But they recovered over the next couple days, helped by all the rain, and should spread like a groundcover in coming years, helping to fill the void in native herbaceous species that still remains, more than a half century after this farmland was left to grow up in trees.

Monday, May 04, 2009

High School Ecolab Wetland--Spring Edition

A detention basin is a dug out area designed to collect rainwater from roofs and parking lots and hold it for awhile after storms. Usually they are designed without thought to their potential as wildlife habitat, and are planted with high-maintenance turf. When located at a high school, it sounds like a place where water is told to go when it's been bad.

This basin was converted to a wetland, planted with native species and informally stocked with native frogs, fish and possibly a turtle. It is fed by an eternal spring, which is the romantic name I'm giving to the sump pump that sends groundwater from the school basement into the wetland every twenty minutes or so, year-round, rain or shine. The steady water supply allows a greater variety of native wetland species to prosper.

After two years and some t.l.c. from teacher Tim Anderson, his students, myself and others, the native plants have become well established. An early bloomer is the marsh marigold. This showy native species is difficult or impossible to find growing in the wild in Princeton, but flourishes in this constructed wetland. (Frequently mistaken for marsh marigold is the bright yellow flower that has colonized many local floodplains--an invasive exotic plant called Lesser Celandine--see April 27, 2007 post.)

The blooms of a species of willow planted in the ecolab wetland were a pleasant surprise. Though native, willow tends to be an aggressive grower that may need to be controlled to allow other species to coexist.

This spring, a pair of mallards showed up, and seemed to give serious consideration to breeding there.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Rogers Refuge Dedication

The new and newish bird observation platforms were dedicated last weekend. Fred Spar, on the right, is president of the Friends of Rogers Refuge (FORR) and gave a short speech thanking all those responsible for helping sustain the refuge. Tom Southerland, further back and to the left, told of the three Toms who were involved with saving the marsh back in the 60s and starting the Friends organization. Tom Poole, Winnie Spar, Laurie Larson, representatives of the American Water Company and Princeton Township--many who have worked to save and restore this jewel and birding mecca were on hand.

Afterwards, we took a walk around the perimeter of the refuge. Here's a shot of violets mixing with spring beauties. The scene is so "clean" because periodic floods clear the forest floor of debris from the previous year, creating an effect that rivals any meticulously cared for garden.

Skunk cabbage and spring beauty made another fine combination. The oak leaves on the ground show that this area didn't flood over the winter.

A solitary Virginia Bluebell was a very pleasing find. Though some of its stems had been browsed, presumably by deer, it was still able to flower. Without the township's program to bring the local deer population into ecological balance, flowers like this wouldn't have a chance.

Nature's garden isn't complete without some sculpture, in this case rendered by a local beaver.

Riding the Wave of Inchworms

I never gave these critters much thought. They appear this time of year, hanging from invisible threads on the eaves, or suspended from low tree limbs in the backyard.

They land on the car, or on a sweater.

You'll likely find their sudden appearance in spring coinciding with the emergence of tree leaves, which they like to eat. Right about this time, migrating warblers show up in Princeton to feast on the inchworms high in the trees.

As spring moves northward, awakening forests as it goes, the warblers follow the wave of new growth, powered by solar energy transferred from tree leaf to inchworm to beating wing.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Silverbells and Snowbells

On the way to Littlebrook Elementary, a scene that looks like a cluster of dogwood trees. But the one furthest to the right has a different shade of white, and turns out to be something unusual.

A rare native, genus Halesia, probably a very large specimen of Carolina Silverbells, also called the Snowdrop Tree. I've never seen one of these in the wild, as is typical of many of the native ornamental trees and shrubs available commercially. Fothergilla, bottlebrush buckeye, oak-leaved hydrangia--all beautiful natives, but who knows where they actually grow in the wild.

That they don't grow naturally around here raises the question as to what ecological connection they make with local wildlife such as pollinators. The insects most adapted to eat their leaves or negotiate their flower shape may not actually live around here.

A couple kinds of bees were found taking an interest. As often seems to be the case, for every insect actually visiting a flower, there are many others buzzing overhead, darting this way and that, staying close to the flowers but never seeming to land. Maybe they're very picky, or maybe some are actually predatory, interested not in the flowers but the pollinators that the flowers attract.

In this way, a tree in flower can seem in some ways similar to a coral reef--a substrate that attracts many kinds of life with varying agendas.

In what seems like an unlikely coincidence, a small tree closely related to Carolina Silverbells, called American Snowbell (Styrax americanus) grows in the neighbor's yard across the street. These are the only two specimens of trees in the Styracaceae family I've seen growing in Princeton.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


1000 native wildflowers and shrubs in our greenhouse need to get in the ground toot sweet. This weekend, I'll be leading two planting sessions--Saturday at 10am, Sunday at 2pm. Please come and help out if you can.

The planting is part of a grant, in which we are given credit, and therefore some funding, according to how many native plants we get in the ground. There will be various activities--digging, planting, mulching--and a stream close by for exploring, so kids are welcome.

Bring gloves, shovels, trowels. We'll meet at Mountain Lakes House (at the end of the long driveway at 57 Mountain Ave, just past the parking lot for Pettoranello Gardens).

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Small Victory At Herrontown

Most people know about the big victory won at the Princeton Battlefield in 1777. Few have heard, however, of the small victory of 2009 that took place at Herrontown Woods, on the other side of town, on a sunny afternoon this past Thursday.

There, the mighty resistance of an eight year old to taking a walk in the woods was overcome by an irresistible alliance of rocks and water.

Strident complaint dissolved into "Daddy, look at this!", as we headed upstream towards a picnic in a boulder field.

Contributing to the rout of homebound entertainment media was a frog presiding over a reflected forest.

Plenty of auxiliary forces were on hand, effective mostly with the accompanying adult. The opening buds of a witch hazel.

Some interesting stuff on the forest floor--here, a reddish-brown spiny fruit of the sweetgum, a flowering wood anemone, and some leaves of trout lily.

And the fiddle heads of Christmas fern perched on boulders.

Even the trails were strategically rock-strewn to add sport and comfort to the way home.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Insects on a Spicebush

Well, I'm at it again, cataloging all the enigmatic creatures that take an interest in various kinds of plants. Today--or actually several days ago, while the spicebush at Mountain Lakes were still in bloom--we feature the creatures who hover, alight and crawl upon Lindera benzoin, the native spicebush, relative of sassafras.

Spicebush, which blooms yellow and early, was drawing more pollinator interest than the exotic forsythia in my backyard, which blooms at the same time.

The tiny insect in this photo was very numerous, and took a very serious interest in whatever the flowers had to provide. The larger, beetle-like creature is probably the same as in the preceding photo.

This fly was very skittish. There were quite a few of this sort zooming around the bush, occasionally alighting briefly. It was mostly a blur, but when it stayed still for a second I could see it had a distinctive light-colored spot on the abdomen.

A Maple's Organizational Skills

I wish I were as organized as a red maple tree. While other trees are still waking up from their winter hunch, these maples have already flowered, formed seeds and have moved on to sprouting leaves. With the task of making progeny done for the most part, the rest of the year is gravy.

Unitarian Church Volunteers Restoring Habitat

Louise Senior calls these volunteer days "Into the Woods", which is where we all headed this past Sunday. Louise organized some volunteers from the Unitarian Church on Cherry Hill Road to start restoring the township-owned woods that borders the church. My job with Friends of Princeton Open Space is to assist such initiatives with some supervision and supplies.

Together, we cleared invasive shrubs and vines, finding amongst their dense growth some natives to save, including blackhaw Viburnum and American Holly.

In the photo, Dunbar Birnie pulls an old multiflora rose away from a forest clearing. The brush was piled back in the woods to make wildlife habitat.

I usually forget to take before and after shots, but here is the forest clearing choked with invasive multiflora rose bushes. This area was targeted for restoration because it is often wet, and open enough to get some sun to the ground.

Here is the transformation--a wet, sunny location ideal for all the various native wildflowers that thrive in such habitat. Some more invasives removal, a follow-up planting of native plants, and what has been a rather empty woods of evergreen trees will start offering a more varied diet for the local wildlife.

Thanks goes to Bill, David and Cathy Bauer-Koggen, Dunbar and Nick Birnie, Stan DeReull and Annette Sheldon.

Volunteers also potted “live stakes” of native elderberry, silky dogwood and buttonbush. Cuttings from these three species can be stuck in soil and, if kept watered and given some sun, will sprout roots and leaves and grow into full-sized shrubs. This small collection of pots actually holds 60 new plants.

The church is planning to have a followup workday May 17.