Sunday, February 26, 2017

Winter Aconite and Fig Buttercup (lesser celandine)--Related Flowers, Contrasting Behaviors

Both of these non-native wildflowers are in the family Ranunculaceae. Both bloom early and have pretty yellow flowers. While one appears to be modest and highly local in its spread, the other spreads so quickly across yards and into neighbors' yards and floodplains as to pose a threat to gardens and natural areas alike.

Here's winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) opening up a week ago in my garden, a legacy from the previous owner. Its modest spread is easily contained. I've never seen it spreading into nature preserves. Note the leaf shape, which distinguishes it from the related wildflower below.

Update: For comparison, here is one of the first blooms of lesser celandine in 2021, on March 30. Note the shape of the leaves, which are "entire" rather than lobed. Just to confuse things, lesser celandine is also called fig buttercup, and its latin name Ranunculus ficaria has apparently changed to Ficaria verna

People think lesser celandine is pretty, transplant it to their gardens, then begin having regrets as it spreads uncontrollably to dominate their gardens and yards. If you are one of the distraught gardeners wishing you didn't have this flower, and not wanting to impose its spread on the rest of the neighborhood, late winter is the time to deal with it. 

Other posts on this subject can be found on this website by typing "celandine" into the search box. A post called "Will the real lesser celandine please stand up--a confusion of yellows" helps with identification.

Though I'm no fan of herbicide, that tends to be the only workable option in the majority of cases. I'm no expert on herbicides, but have been told that for lawns, a broadleaf herbicide like Weed Be Gone is effective. For flower beds, a 2% formulation of glyphosate (Roundup or equivalent) works well. Monsanto doesn't hold the patent any longer on glyphosate, so it's possible to buy if from other companies on the internet. I use a wetland-safe formulation, but for most yards, away from wetlands, some spot spraying with Roundup or equivalent should be okay. The plant itself is poisonous to wildlife. 

There have been other proposed means of killing the plant: 
If you blanket the whole infestation thoroughly with mulch, e.g. a layer of cardboard covered leaves or hay or woodchips, it might kill the lesser celandine if you mulch as soon as the plants leaf out in late winter. Chances are, you won't cover it soon enough, or you'll miss some spots, and the lesser celandine will benefit next year from the fertilizer in the mulch. 

This concoction has shown up on the internet: 1 gal white vinegar, 2 cups Epsom salts, 1/4 cup Dawn dishwashing detergent in a hand held 2 gal pump sprayer. Spray in bright sun on a windless day.
But I couldn't find evidence that it has been carefully tested, nor that it would kill the roots. If the roots survive, the plant will be back next year. The concoction contains an acid, and the salts are made of magnesium and sulphates. These may or may not be harmful to the soil if used to excess. 

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Roads and Parking Lots as Ephemeral Streams

Roads and parking lots don't look like streams, but they are. Princeton Shopping Center is one of the "headwaters" of Harry's Brook, and its snowmelt offers a good demonstration of how water flows from pavement to stormwater pipe to the brook itself. The subtle sheddings of brakepads, tires, and leaky engines, along with the not so subtle salt residue and litter, are hastened by the rain to join whatever aquatic life resides downstream. Washing all of this "away", a rain seems cleansing to us, as it sullies an unseen nature that's expected to quietly absorb the recurrent insult and carry on.

There's a similar deception at work in the chimneys of our homes. If the environment gains hardly a mention in the political world, it's because pollution is now largely unintentional, hidden, diffuse, subtle in its source and distant in its impact.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Did U Put the Ant in Cantaloupe?

It just doesn't seem right. Ants in February, feasting on tiny bits of cantaloupe on the kitchen counter when it's below freezing outside. And what sort of February is this, with cantaloupe for sale and a stretch of 60 degree days starting tomorrow? Has nature finally surrendered to the economy and abolished seasons altogether? Even the spelling of the word "cantaloupe" comes as a surprise, after a lifetime of not really noticing. Maybe one of our political parties will once again decide it dislikes all things french, and defiantly serve "cantalope" with American fries in the cafeteria of the U.S. Congress. Their presidential candidate will boldly declare that "This campaign is all about U", and promise that, to strengthen the nation's moral character, his first action as president will be to proclaim that the english language can't elope with French words. The other political party, tired of relentless negativity, will base its campaign on the slogan "Yes we canaloupe". By this time, a previous president will have indefinitely suspended all future elections, consigning the nation to a campaign season without substance and without end. Meanwhile, the meekest and tiniest among the ants, thriving in a climate made weird by too many tiny molecules in the atmosphere, and seeing the big-brained species devolving into nonsense, will seize the day and inherit the earth.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Graupel--A Special Form of Snow

All snow is special. Like children, except more numerous and lower maintenance, no two snowflakes are the same. As we know, snow that falls in Princeton's coveted 08540 zip code is extra special, and on the last day of January, there fell a particularly special kind of Principitation. Instead of flakes, the snow looked more like small beads of styrofoam.

When it fell one day two years ago, thinking it needed a name, I coined what seemed like a new term: snubbins. A recent google search, however, revealed that the word "snubbins" is sometimes used to refer to medium sized breasts. Who knew?

A less conflicted name came out of the blue during a trip to the Whole Earth Center, when longtime employee Bill excitedly showed me a printout from Wikipedia, describing this special snow as "graupel". To quote: "Graupel, also called soft hail or snow pellets, is precipitation that forms when supercooled droplets of water are collected and freeze on falling snowflakes, forming 2–5 mm balls of rime." These supercooled droplets, suspended high in the air and still liquid down to -40 F, collect and freeze around the snowflakes as they fall towards earth. The behavior of supercooled water came up in another recent post admiring the patterns the minipond water makes when it freezes.

In this photo of the graupel collected on our backyard fillable/spillable minipond, or mini-rink this time of year, you can see their shape. In the middle of the photo there's a snowflake still visible, only partly covered in rime.

In this photo, some of the graupel takes the shape of corn kernels.

Favorites from the archive:

Principitation: Coins and defines useful terms for various kinds of snow and snowy objects, e.g. snirt, snoodle, kerfluffle, and we-cicles (plural of i-cycles).

Snowbound Language: A Victor Borgesque story about what happens when snow blankets the english language.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

DR Canal Nature Loop in Winter

The DR Canal State Park crew hasn't yet done its annual mowing of our little nature trail, next to the towpath just upstream of the Harrison Street bridge. That means we can do a little virtual February nature walk. (Summer tour at this link.) Some background info: The land here, bounded by the Washington Rd and Harrison Street bridges, the canal and Carnegie Lake, is owned by Princeton University but maintained by the DR Canal State Park. Back around 2006, having seen native wildflowers getting mowed down, I convinced them to shift from weekly to annual mowings of the areas away from the towpath. The annual mowings keep the meadows from growing up with trees. They then created this nature loop through the open woodland with sunny patches of wildflowers and views of Carnegie Lake.

It starts with a nice sign and box for pamphlets that I need to refill.

On your right is a stand of switch grass--one of the grasses of midwestern and plain state prairies that also grows in the east. Switch grass is one of the native grasses that grows erect enough to fit in as an ornamental in people's gardens. It got its two seconds of fame in a president's 2006 State of the Union address, as a potential source of ethanol.

Left of the path are the remains of an evening primrose's seedheads, held high.

A short way down the trail is a cluster of red oak leaves. Follow the branch back to the trunk of the tree,

and you can see that the beavers have been busy.

A little farther is a bench looking north across Lake Carnegie.

A closer look at what's growing there along the shore shows the remains of last summers native hibiscus blooms (Hibiscus moscheutos). Kayakers heading upstream on the Millstone River from Carnegie Lake in midsummer will encounter this showy wildflower lining the banks in some sections, its feet in the water.

The bench, by the way, was donated in memory of Anuita Margolis Blanc. An internet source says she founded the Nassau Cooperative Nursery School, was president of the Princeton Assn. for Human Rights, president of the Princeton Study Center, and founder and partner of Princeton Crossroads Realty.

Here and there you'll see the seedheads of ironweed, a tall reddish native floodplain wildflower that blooms in later summer.

Also on the left are some clones of Indian hemp, related to milkweed.

Pin oak has narrower, more deeply lobed leaves than red oak. There are lots of different oaks along the pathway, including a bur oak, which is more of a midwestern species--evidence that at one point the university planted this area to ornament the entry into campus from Route 1.

Broomsedge, actually a bluestem grass, grows along the right edge of the trail. A field of broomsedge can be a beautiful sight in winter, except to farmers who view its presence as evidence of poor soil.

You'll see lots of this--Japanese honeysuckle. Though it's one of the first invasive species I learned about, it cannot compete with the smothering power of porcelainberry, which is now dominating farther down the trail in sunnier areas.

Where the trail turns left and heads towards the towpath before bending back around, there are expanding groupings of Joe-Pye-Weed--one of the native summer wildflowers that has responded well to the annual mowing management.

Look on the ground around there and you're likely to see a "gum ball"--the many-capsuled fruit of the sweetgum tree.

Look up and you'll see many of the gum balls still on the tree.

Goldenrods are thriving. The floodplain species of goldenrod tend to spread underground via rhizomes and tend to dominate over time.

Some trees are "self pruning", but pin oaks tend to hold their lower branches, which bend down in a characteristic way.

Beech trees are related to oaks, and show the similar habit of holding onto their leaves far into winter.

Beyond this bench is a tree that's lost some of its lower bark.

More evidence of beavers.

Here's one of the shrubs left over from the 1960s era plantings by the university--a row of fragrant honeysuckle that sometimes gets on lists of invasive species, though I've never seen it spread. It has small but very fragrant white flowers in late winter. Lonicera fragrantissima is the latin name.

The remains of a pokeweed bloom.

That gets you about halfway down the path. It circles back over to the towpath. The Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park has programming during the year.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Chickens and the Origins of Flight

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

A Loon Visits Carnegie Lake

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.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Water: Our Backyard Artist in Residence

Even in the winter, or maybe especially in the winter, there's a lot of creativity and beauty in our backyard, thanks to a fillable-spillable 35 gallon black tub that catches runoff from the roof. If the night dips below freezing, the open water becomes a canvas for elaborate 3-dimensional designs.

Why the water doesn't freeze flat is hard to fathom. Sometimes, if the night's freeze has been light, these geometric shapes will frame miniature pools of open water that jiggle when the tub is tapped.

Cold brings out an unexpected beauty in water, and sometimes in ourselves, if we have clothes to match the weather, and take the cold as a bracing stimulant rather than, as Garrison Keillor would say, "nature's attempt to kill us."

These images were first posted at as News Flash: Nature is a Geometer, in a post that links to an Exploratorium exhibit that shows how supercooled water can freeze over in a flash.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Starlings, Passenger Pigeons, and the Uneaten Acorns

Acorns, anyone? It's called "flooding the zone"--a technical term commonly used by botanists who grew up playing sports. Some people see it as a mess, and curse the trees. An alternative target for cursing, just to put it out there, would be the tree-phobic landscape of concrete and lawn that we impose beneath the trees. A forest floor is far more accommodating of arboreal excess. There, a tree can let it all hang out, let it all fall down--seeds of all sorts, leaves, branches--and the forest floor will shrug, take it all in, and turn it into wildflowers.

In town, the blanketing of acorns turns into a blanketing of oak seedlings, few if any of which have any prospects of reaching maturity. The seedlings seem to be saying, "Move me to an opening along the street where I could shade some asphalt", but it doesn't look like people are listening.

For some people, a love of trees is layered with deep resentment of this fecundity. For me, looking for logic in nature's ways, the question is not "What to do with it all?", but "What's missing?" Past posts about osage orange and honey locust ask the same question, and suggest a missing herbivore that would have consumed the abundance in the past. Botanical abundance has lost a once complementary zoological abundance.

A partial answer came this past Nov. 10, when masses of starlings swept through, congregating in the pin oaks behind our house. A closer look revealed they were gobbling down acorns. Minutes later, they were gone, having left our pin oaks a little lighter.

The starling is not native, though, so doesn't speak to what would have consumed the oaks' abundance historically. And starlings appear too small to deal with the larger acorns of other species such as red oak. Still, it's behavior suggests that the spectacular fecundity of oaks might once have fed a complementary fecundity in the avian world--some highly mobile species, large enough to deal with a broader range of acorn size, that could make quick wing across eastern North America, swooping in to feast and move on.

Enter Ectopistes migratorius, a.k.a. the passenger pigeon, a bird of spectacular mobility and historical numbers. The photos are from a wonderful NJ State Museum exhibit two years ago.

A fine writeup on the Smithsonian website says "the mainstays of the passenger pigeon's diet were beechnuts, acorns, chestnuts, seeds, and berries found in the forests." They may also have swept in to feast on the seeds of our native bamboo, Arundinaria, which at one time covered large areas in the southeast and, like other bamboos, typically bloomed only once every several decades.

It can be tempting to say that the starling is providing a service by partially filling the void left by the extinction of the passenger pigeon. A few books have come out in recent years that claim invasive species like starlings aren't a big problem after all. The books in turn embolden news editors to publish articles and opeds with a similarly seductive revisionism, showing the same willingness to cherry pick evidence and rush to conclusions. I've written detailed critiques of various of these, including one recent article that mentioned starlings.

It would be interesting to explore to what extent the massive numbers of starlings have filled the niche left empty by the extinction of the passenger pigeon. Though feeding habits may overlap somewhat, one big difference is likely to be nesting behavior. Starlings compete with native birds for nesting sites, while the passenger pigeons appear to have built nests on branches, where they would not have displaced birds seeking tree cavities.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Morning Vision in the Trees

Yesterday, while my younger daughter was getting ready for school, I happened to look out the back window and saw a sight that became a vision:

After days of deep freeze, the temperature rises towards the 60s, and the squirrels are frolicking in the trees. By the tens they go. By the tens!? They flow like a spiraling current up trunks, out branches, leaping tree to tree, thinking three dimensionally. So cute and breathtaking, these acrobatic rats with charismatic tails! And so thoughtfully integrated, like the ads, with one black squirrel mixed in with the gray, all at ease and thrilled by the heady weather. Might humans, too, festering in ancient animosities, fall into long winter's slumber, then awaken in a January thaw to a fresh world redolent and warm, where life moves forward in leaps and bounds, and all fear of difference has been forgotten.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Charismatic Chickens Explore Their Wild Side

For a long time, our chickens stuck to the straight and narrow. They lived as everyone expected them to, spending their days scratching and pecking at bugs and worms in the yard, nibbling seeds off the grass, turning all that foraging into eggs, then dutifully returning to the coop each night to sleep, or whatever trance-like state chickens attain while roosting.

We in turn would dutifully feed them, open and close the coop door each day and night, and gratefully, somewhat guiltily, make off with the eggs. My respect grew for these gentle Araucanas, going about their days, so purposeful, so competent, so giving in their convenient repackaging of nature's abundance. When arctic air swept through, they would roost in the unheated coop as always, then step spryly out of the coop the next morning, impervious, as if antifreeze coursed through their veins.

The relationship started to change, though, a year or so ago. Perhaps the four chickens had depleted our yard's supply of wild food. They discovered they could cross over the back fence, and find fresh gleanings in the town park. I began getting reports of the great delight they were bringing to kids and parents. Then they ranged farther afield, three doors up to our neighbors' backyard, where they could gorge on birdseed spilled onto the ground from the birdfeeder. They still dabbled in our tray of standard issue chickenfeed from the farm supply store now and then, but you could tell their standards had changed. They were developing new tastes, new friendships.

They continued returning each night to sleep in the coop, and continued supplying eggs. We thought ourselves so lucky, to be reaping the harvest of eggs and pleasant anecdotes these beneficent creatures produced. They were like salmon, feeding broadly, then returning with an uncanny homing instinct to feed us generously. But then one of the chickens stopped showing up at the coop at dusk. We worried that a hawk might have gotten it, but our neighbors would report seeing it during the day. Another chicken disappeared altogether, considered gone for sure until a neighbor on the other side of the park sent word that it had adopted her yard. She loved how it would come running to her when she brought it food and water. I tried to retrieve it, but the chicken clearly did not want to be caught.

The freedom of coopless living ultimately seduced them all. Our coop lay abandoned by the birds it was meant to protect. We'd spot them sporadically, in front yard or back, or up at the neighbors' as they made their daily rounds. No one knew where they were roosting, nor where the eggs, if any, were getting laid. We thought of catching them and closing them in the coop for a few days to get them back into old habits, but in a way they've outgrown that old domestic servitude, the grind of laying egg after egg to serve the master. They've discovered an old forgotten resourcefulness, awakened dormant capacities deep in their genes. It seems a dangerous life, unprotected at night, and yet they survive. It helps that the foxes don't get up this way, and raccoon sightings are rare.

Last week, I had been up very early and was just heading back to bed at 7am for a brief doze when I heard a blood curdling screech just outside our bedroom window. I ran outside with a coat over my pajamas and peered into the bushes. A coopers hawk burst out, flying right past me and up to a tree nearby. Such magnificent creatures they are. I peered more closely at the ground next to the house and saw the brown chicken, motionless in the window well. Surely it couldn't have survived such an attack, but then its head suddenly popped up. It jumped up out of the window well, gave me a quick look, then disappeared under the shrub. It had lost a few feathers, but otherwise looked fine. The feathers of a chicken, I'm realizing, provide not only magnificent insulation and some modest flying power, but also serve as a shield that confounds predators' attempts to penetrate it. The predator ends up with a feather in its mouth while the bird scurries away, and the rachis--that stiff central stem of the feather--serves collectively as body armor.

Of course, if I hadn't shown up, the coopers hawk would have ultimately had its breakfast, lunch and dinner, and we would have grieved. The chickens' choice of freedom comes with risks.

Just a few days ago, my daughter reported that the chickens were now roosting at night in an evergreen shrub at the corner of our house, eight feet up from the ground. It's comforting to know they are near. Each evening, I stop by to say hello,

and leave food nearby, under a recycling bin that got broken being used as a target for backyard lacrosse practice, then got partly consumed making trail signs for a local preserve, and now has a new life keeping rain and snow out of the chicken feed. There's collected rainwater to drink in the fillable-spillable tub in the backyard.

If a big snowstorm comes, we may pluck the sleepy chickens from their roost and put them in the coop for the night. We're letting them make up their own life as they go along, which may include a return to the coop. Yesterday, I saw the brown chicken walk over and disappear into the coop. Later on, I stopped in to find two fresh eggs, the first laid there in months. Maybe that's how a chicken says thank you if you save its life.

UPDATE: After six inches of snow fell, the chickens looked like they were going to stay up in the bushes all day, to keep their feet warm. We plucked them down and closed them in the coop for a couple days until the snow melted (this winter's like North Carolina, not New Jersey).

Any hopes that two days in the coop would rehabituate them to returning there each night were dashed, however. A few pecks at the cracked corn in morning light and they were back to their accustomed rounds,

then roosting again in the bushes next to our house for the night. It's interesting to see how they keep their feet warm while roosting, by squatting down so their feet disappear under the puffed up feathers.

Eggs from our "Easter egg chickens". In a new twist, the egg on the right has two shades of green.