Friday, April 25, 2014

A Springtime Walk Through Herrontown Wood

One of the prettier spots to take a walk in Princeton is Herrontown Wood, the original nature preserve from which all others in town followed. The parking lot is down a deadend street opposite the entrance to Smoyer Park on Snowden Lane.

Though long blocked by fallen trees and invasive shrubs, the trails were reopened last summer and fall by Kurt and Sally of the Friends of Herrontown Wood.

They continue to work to improve the trails where the many rivulets of spring runoff cross.

In spring there's good flow in the rocky streams,

and skunk cabbage makes ribbons of green where floodplains broaden.

Trees grow where they're self-planted,

trout lilies spread across the forest floor where plows didn't erase the soil's memory,

and a few patches of Rue-anemone survive along the trail edges.

With most native woody plants just beginning to come out of dormancy, the cliff is still visible from a distance. The "second forest" of non-native shrubs--mostly privet, multiflora rose and winged euonymus--is casting a diffuse green. The early greening of the non-natives has the unfortunate effect of casting shade on the native spring ephemeral flowers that need the spring sunlight to gather enough energy for the next year's growth.

Mosses decorate the boulders with their infinite patterns.

One thing that needed tending to was the propping up of one of the few specimens of native hearts a'burstin' (Euonymus americana) in Princeton. It's a favorite food of deer, but this specimen has survived because it is too tall for the deer to reach. Propping up will allow it to flower and set seed this fall. If only the deer would eat the many thousands of exotic winged Euonymus that clog portions of the park, there wouldn't be such an imbalance. But the wildlife's tastes don't seem to adapt to consume the introduced species.

At least the many exotic shrubs have helped out in one instance: We just found another hearts a'burstin' this past week, whose survival owes in part to the dense surrounding growth of exotic privet that has likely prevented the deer from discovering it.

On a recent outing, I met a woman with a beautiful reddish dog named Fred, whose high level of alertness suggested a closer connection than usual with ancestral wolves. As we talked, we heard birdcalls down the hill that later turned out to be three pileated woodpeckers.

This could be said to be where open space preservation began in Princeton, at the 1870s farmhouse that the famous mathematician Oswald Veblen bought in the 1930s for his study, on land he and his wife Elizabeth would later donate to the county as Herrontown Wood.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

When a Coop Flew the Coop

The time came last week to move the chicken coop to the back of the property so that we could start beautifying the patio next to the house. The move came after months of careful planning and procrastination. The project was a good opportunity to use some of that used lumber scavenged from the local curbside kmart over the years. The chickens came over to check on progress, and to look for any grubs my large mammal activity might have stirred up.

Fortunately, the former owners had fashioned a platform of concrete blocks, used 50 years ago for a rabbit hutch.  We are simply carrying on an agrarian and can-do/do-it-yourself tradition established by the original owners. With serendipity as my co-pilot, I found that the pieces of the old coop could easily be unscrewed from each other and fit very well in the new location.

Even with serendipity, it took a couple days to make all the old coop parts fit together in a new configuration. It helped that the repurposed skylights didn't fall over and break, despite multiple close calls. Natural light is important in a coop, especially during winter when the chickens tend to stop laying if daylight isn't sufficient.

With most projects like this, there's a magical moment when the new space becomes real, when the end comes suddenly into sight, and all the hours spent feel worthwhile. Now all it needs is a few boards screwed over the openings, to keep any night predators out. With some interior decorating, what fowl could resist?

Well, the chickens and ducks were so habituated to the old coop that we had to carry them over to the new one each evening. After the third or fourth night, they finally bonded with the new coop and made the journey themselves. There's been a call for a coat of paint, though the weathered look has its charms.

Now, if we could only convince Buttons to lay in the coop, rather than hiding her eggs behind the hay pile. Sometimes we think one or another fowl has stopped laying, only to find a surprise somewhere in the yard after several weeks.

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Birthday Climb Up Mount Tammany

What to do on a birthday? Wanting something more spiritual than material, we decided last month to climb a mountain. The best day to go turned out not to be my birthday but my sister Anne's, who had lost a battle with pancreatic cancer a couple years back. She loved mountains, and had climbed a few in her lifetime, the biggest being a figurative one--making it in the man's world of polymer chemistry. Towards the end of her career, she received a large grant to start an institute whose mission was in part to bring more women into the sciences. She loved gardens, modern art, and hard work, and took the long view--all good reasons to spend her birthday climbing a mountainside, with patches of dormant mountain laurel and blueberries telling of past bounty and future promise, and panoramic views to open our minds up wide.

In New Jersey, there are several mountains to choose from. Baldpate Mountain and the Sourlands close by, and High Point among others to the north. Pyramid Mountain with its improbable Tripod Rock sounded interesting, but we were warned the trails remained treacherous with ice. We ended up choosing Mount Tammany because it has the greatest rise, the steepest climb and the ranger thought the trails would be passable.

Even though well trod, there was enough snow and ice remaining that we had to step from rock to rock to get traction.

Last year's seedheads still hung on the mountain laurels.

There were small treasures, like the squiggly leaves of poverty oats grass,

and big, rewarding views.

If enough people gazed out upon a view like this, with one ridge giving way to another, on and on into the mist of infinity, America might take more interest in its shared future.

This shrub, growing in the rocky clearing at the top of the mountain,

is actually an oak.

After climbing up on the red trail, we took the blue trail over the ridge and down the other side, through a giant blueberry patch beneath an open canopy of oaks. I imagine that shade-grown coffee bears its fruit in a similarly filtered light in central America.

The hike down could have been treacherous if not for soft snow that gave more traction along the edges. On the hardened snow of the trail, finding a safe place to step required keeping an eye on the snow. Subtle variations in the light reflecting off the frozen surfaces hinted which snow would be the least slippery. Somehow during the descent, with each step requiring quick decisions, I found time to speculate on whether this ancient honing of eyesight for the sake of survival finds modern application in the appreciation of how light plays on a canvas or a photograph.

Linear etchings in the rock suggested past presence of glaciers.

One of the blue trail's rewards is a beautiful stream leading down a valley to the parking area.

Here's a good natural representation of what in stream restoration is called a cross vein. The rocks, shaped like a "V" pointing upstream, focus the water's flow inwards to create a scouring action that over time scours out a deep pool. Constructed examples of this can be found in Princeton University's stream restoration just down the hill from the new chemistry building.

Icicles of many shapes decorated the streambank, like frozen tears suspended above the water's flow.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Dinky Wildlife

I've been known to bring readers the "inside story" on recycling, to show which recycling bin designs work, and which only make it more likely that people will mix trash and recyclables by throwing whatever wherever. The best evidence of how a recycling bin is performing is inside the bins themselves. Photos and commentary ended up occupying their own blog,, with samples from Princeton and around the world.

When it comes to the contents of trash cans, I leave the research to others, like this raccoon at the Dinky Station, who clearly agrees that the inside of a trash container tells a story, and an edible one at that.

The raccoon's research may never get published, but in the meantime the raccoon's doing its part to reduce the amount of foodwaste headed to the landfill.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Monarch Butterflies' Future Up in the Air

I got a lot of comments on this letter to the editor, which appeared a couple weeks ago in two local papers. 

Even if March finally brings relief from winter’s chill, this spring is sending a shiver down my spine. March is when the monarch butterflies take wing from their small forest enclave in the mountains of Mexico. Their numbers have been dwindling. Since the first count in the 1990s, the overwintering population of monarchs, clustered together on dense evergreen trees, has shrunk from a high of 50 acres down to a mere 1.5 acres of the forest this winter. As the monarchs begin their annual flight north, they have the reproductive capacity to rebound, but they face ever tougher odds.

The monarchs’ fate is literally up in the air. There’s the herbicide that again will be sprayed on more than 150 million acres of Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” corn in the midwest. Back when tillage was used for weed control, farm fields doubled as pretty good habitat for monarchs. Now, the intense spraying of herbicide-tolerant corn and soybeans has largely exterminated the milkweed the monarch caterpillars cannot survive without.

Also airborne are ever greater numbers of carbon dioxide molecules, drivers of the global weirding that buffets wildlife with increasing extremes of drought, heat and cold. And there’s the political hot air that spawned an irrational subsidy of ethanol production, which since 2007 has motivated farmers to plow up prairie and roadsides to grow more corn and thereby reduce monarch habitat even more. Since the ethanol produced barely equals the energy required to grow the crops, any societal benefit is dwarfed by the vast loss of habitat in the country's heartland.

Precious few monarchs visited Princeton last year. details the conditions that could allow them to rebound to some extent. But the worry is that, like the passenger pigeons that disappeared early in the previous century, monarchs may need a critical mass to sustain their miraculous migration. Other than supporting national efforts to restore habitat, and reducing our fossil fuel consumption from gulps down to sips, we can seek to be optimal hosts to whatever monarchs reach our backyards.

If you have some sunlit areas, DR Greenway and the farmers market are sources for native milkweed species. In my role as a local naturalist, I collected seeds of local genotypes of milkweed last year and plan to grow and share as many as I can. In a world so focused on extraction and consumption, it will take years of effort, advocacy and luck just to keep what we’ve always taken for granted, and to warm up again the feeling of spring.

Note: The Nature Conservancy blog offers some background information on the monarchs' migration, here and here, and the NRDC has a letter writing campaign aimed at the EPA.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Hosting Chickens in Princeton

Even though it seems like spring just started, the window of opportunity for buying chicks to grow as backyard egg layers and pets is quickly closing. They need enough time to grow up before cold weather comes. We bought our chicks two years ago at Rosedale Mills in Pennington, and get our feed either there or at the Belle Mead Coop up 206. Rosedale Mills told me they have a wide variety of chicks right now, and are expecting one last additional batch of chicks to arrive in a couple weeks.

The legality of having chickens in Princeton has been disputed, but I researched it and learned that it is considered legal as long as the neighbors don't mind. Our chickens (no rooster needed) have been very quiet, and though the two ducks we have speak up now and then, the neighbors say they enjoy the sound. Pre-made coops can be pricey, but a coop makes a nice project to fashion out of spare wood.

You can find lots of posts on this blog about the chickens and ducks we have, by typing "chickens" into the search box, which gets you this group of posts. Our Aracana chickens each produce an egg every day or two, are very approachable and holdable, need no supplementary heat in the winter, and get the run of the fenced-in backyard during the day. Read various posts here and abundantly elsewhere online to familiarize yourself with issues like hawks.

The ducklings came via the mail from California. They are messier birds than the chickens, but are real characters, and lay even more eggs than the chickens. Duck eggs, with their larger yolks and somewhat drier characteristics, are handy for baking.

Most people keep their chickens in a fully enclosed run, but we find letting them all run free is worth the risk, particularly when we have a "guard duck" of the Pekin variety that seems to intimidate the hawks. Care is a matter of keeping them in food and water, closing them in at night, cleaning the coop regularly, and retrieving the eggs.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Upcoming Environmental Talks at Princeton University

Jenny Price, a visiting environmental historian, activist and writer at the Princeton Environmental Institute, sent me these links to upcoming talks she'll be a part of. A couple years ago, I realized that humor might help engage more people in environmental issues, and began writing tragicomic scripts having to do with climate change. It was also a matter of having put serious time into a lot of environmental projects, and feeling a need to have some fun.

I contacted Jenny when I noticed she's teaching a course at PEI about humor and the environment. Note in particular the "That's Not Funny" event, whose link includes more about Jenny's work.

Architecture, Cities, & Nature
Lecture series this month in the School of Architecture, Rm 107, 4:30 on Thursdays

Whose Coast Is It? -- April 9, 5pm
Event about NJ coastal resilience.
Robertson Hall 002

That's Not Funny! -- April 16
Three to speak on humor and environment
and April 16 late-night comedy show--with Yoram Bauman & student warm-ups -- Campus Club, 9:30pm

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Some April Fools Headlines

Tree casts shadow of snow.

Spring has sprung? (Actually, the photo's from Nov. 30, when these daylilies' fresh growth was triggered by the heat generated inside a fresh pile of woodchips they were buried under.)

Spring over before it begins. (At least for the fading flowers of hybrid asian witch hazel lining Princeton University's Shapiro Walk)

And a not so funny one.

Picture window plays nasty trick on bird. (Ouch! It left some feathers behind, but apparently recovered enough to fly away.)

The Paradox of Fire in Nature

This post may run contrary to everything you've ever heard or been taught about fire. On the left side of the photo is a man dressed in protective clothing, carrying a torch and a water tank. On the right are kids and parents watching, as if the fire were a magic show at the local library.

Danger on the left, complete ease on the right. There are buildings, people, and fire in close proximity, yet no one seems concerned. What's going on here?

It's the annual prescribed burn that takes place in Buhr Park in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a few hundred feet from where I once lived. Thanks to the initiative and gentle persistence of an environmentally minded neighbor who runs a small daycare next to the park, and with cooperation from the city's innovative Natural Areas Preservation program in Parks and Rec, the park's broad expanse of turf is now dotted with three wet meadows that absorb stormwater runoff and are packed with native grasses and wildflowers. In the long ago, fire was nature's way of cleaning up last year's debris and setting the stage for new growth. In highly populated areas, or most anywhere a fire could spread, this once natural process must be recreated under controlled conditions. The broad lawns provide a convenient fire break and safe vantage point from which locals can watch the annual burning of the meadows.

If this goes against everything you read in the paper about destructive forest fires, it's because fire can be highly constructive or destructive in nature, depending on the timing, intensity of fire, and the kind of habitat being burned. As the Wet Meadow Project's email states:
"Although burning may seem destructive, fire actually serves to stimulate vigorous new growth of native plants, control the invasion of undesirable plants, warm the soil and release nutrients.  Fire allows diverse, native plant and animal communities to thrive in natural areas."
The burning is done by professionals and timed for optimal beneficial effect. That it also makes a fine excuse for a family picnic in the park is a bonus. The native plants are all local genotypes, which I think initially came from plants no longer needed by a university student who was doing some research, so this project brought town, gown, and local citizens together.

Here's more text from the email announcement, which I include here because it would be such a treat if Princeton's ecological awareness reached the point where such an activity could take place locally. Smoyer Park, out Snowden Lane, is particularly well suited, because it has ready-made depressions that could easily be converted into wet meadows, surrounded by expanses of turfgrass. The thin coating of ash after a burn makes an excellent seedbed, so seeds are collected before the burn, then scattered afterwards.
"One parent says, "It's quite a sight - my daughter has gone to prescribed burns from age 2 and loves them.  I think it's quite safe for kids of any age if they're with a parent."
We'll scatter native plant seeds back on the meadows after the burn. Then In a few weeks the meadows will be springing back to life, better than ever.
If the weather permits, consider bringing a picnic supper.  Come and go when you like.  The event is free and open to the public."
I don't expect this sort of prescribed burn will happen in Princeton anytime soon, but if a more local model is needed, it is being done in meadows and oak forest at a preserve an hour north of Princeton. This link takes you to photos of those fires, and the beautiful parklike effect of the regrowth.

For more on Ann Arbor's Buhr Park Children’s Wet Meadow Project, go to

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.