Wednesday, February 28, 2018

More of Nature's Art in a Backyard Minipond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Waiting to Hear About Monarchs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Guanacos in the Patagonian Desert

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

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

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

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

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

One guanaco,

two guanacos,

three guanacos,


Five guanacos

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

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Scott McVay to Speak at StonyBrook-Millstone Watershed Center

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

More info at this link.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Lesser Rheas in Patagonia

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 22, 2018

Carnegie Hall, Carnegie Lake, Carnegie Minipond?

New York has some pretty impressive temples to the arts, this one being Carnegie Hall. These structures reach for the sky, but remain enveloped within nature's eternal Play of the Elements, with performances ranging from symphonic sunsets and cloud patterns to the crystalline miniatures of snowflakes. Light sets the mood, with water as the endlessly creative molecule so at ease in earth's temperature range, shifting effortlessly from gas to liquid to the solid state where it can really show off its range of expression. As long as there's cold weather, a breeze, or a sunset to reflect, water will offer performances at Princeton's Carnegie Lake, as well as smaller venues across NJ.

Easiest for us to access are the rainwater-fed "Carnegie Miniponds" in our backyard, which have been offering an ongoing series of exhibits.

The day after the backyard "etching" photos were taken (previous post), the fillable-spillable minipond had gained a pock-marked appearance, thus far as inexplicable in origin as the etchings.

another had these rich designs.

How does some water sitting in a tub overnight develop such a variety of shapes?

Another slight thaw and overnight freeze brought back more patterns 
like those from two days prior, 
etched by a most mysterious hand.
Thus far, no patterns repetitive enough to call "Philip's Glass".

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

An Exhibit of Nature's Etchings

(Preface: 2018 was a special winter in our backyard, due to the remarkable patterns and rich colors that appeared in our "fillable, spillable" minipond.) 
Our backyard artist in residence program has been going very well this winter. The artist, content to remain outdoors without lodging, has been working long hours, often overnight and in freezing temperatures, using nothing more than rainwater and a few leaves to achieve remarkable effects.

I did my best to capture the work, and give it adequate framing.

Asked how she achieved her unusual effects, and if these etchings, so different from her past works, represented a new direction in her art, she shrugged and said nothing,

then showed me a composition with etchings superimposed on what appeared to be a large bubble.

Some were more subtle than others, relying on rich undertones.

Wondering if the etching style was unique to the fillable-spillable miniponds that catch rainwater from the roof, I went to the other miniponds in the yard, created years back by digging down into dense clay. Here there were etchings as well, in a multimedia context using leaves.

Impressed, I suggested we host an exhibition, but there was no time to plan, or send out invitations. Nature, ever the restless artist, had already moved on, with rain and then snow in the forecast for overnight.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

'Tis the Season for Winter's Artistry

The unwrapped fig trees may be toast, or froast, after a frigid night, but the backyard "artist in residence" has been busy, transforming the rainwater in a 35 gallon tub that sits under a downspout. Putting the word "ice" in the search box for this blog brings up what could be an art exhibition of Winter's past work, e.g. I Like Ice, and Patterns in Carnegie Ice, 2015.

An effervescent toast to readers of Princeton Nature Notes, and may all the joys of nature be yours in the new year.

Monday, December 25, 2017

A Couple Closeups of Backyard Birds from 2017

The hummingbirds like the mix of woodies and wildflowers in our backyard, using the trees to perch and the jewelweed and beebalm to feed.

The cutleaf coneflowers extend the yellow of their flowers by attracting goldfinches, who seem to know no other mode than "enthused", as they acrobatically pluck unripe seeds from the bending stems, then fly off in small flocks or gangs, all a-chatter.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Winter Solstice, and a Farewell to Fall Color

This being the winter equinox, one last tip of the camera to autumn, and a couple species that are particularly dynamic in the evolution of their fall color. Oak-leafed hydrangea has a broad color pallet in fall, from bright orange to this mottling of burgundy and something akin to purple.

Showy stonecrop (Sedum spectabile), not native but not invasive either, evolves in the fall from green to pink to burgundy to chocolate. Extending its ornament into winter, its upright disks of flowers become hooded with snow. This year, they didn't make it to the chocolate stage, instead turning a rich bronze with contrasting yellow leaves below.

By chance, we planted the oak-leafed hydrangeas and Sedums with Virginia sweetspire, a native that also has a very rich and complementary fall color. All three of these are easy to propagate, in order to gradually expand on an initial planting.

(Photos taken Dec. 4)

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Aesthetics of Seed Collection

Leaving seedheads to stand in the garden through the winter can bring unexpected pleasure, like these snow-capped purple coneflowers. Any seeds not eaten by the goldfinches eventually fall to the ground and make new plants for transplanting elsewhere.

This year, though, I've been more organized about harvesting seed, the aim being to scatter it at a detention basin in Smoyer Park converted two years ago to a meadow, and at the "fallen pine forest" near the parking lot at Herrontown Woods, which Friends of Herrontown Woods volunteers have been clearing of invasives so sunlight can reach sun-loving species like this ironweed.

Seeds of rose mallow hibiscus are very conveniently and aesthetically packaged for easy plucking.

The utilitarian act of collection can bring unexpected moments of beauty in plants that a more intense management approach might have already cut down as part of fall cleanup. The cottony seedheads of hollow-stemmed Joe-Pye-Weed down along the canal take on different looks when backlit

or directly lit by resiny late afternoon sun.

Seed collecting continues even after arriving home, picking the tick trefoil seeds off denim pants.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

A Deer's Landscape Services

Funny. I didn't remember requesting landscape services. Deer hadn't shown up in our backyard since around 2005, when the birth control experiment was still underway and the females were looking elegant and very Princetonian with those identification cards hanging from their ears. Maybe it was taking refuge from hunters, or had had enough of rutting season.

Deer are expert landscapers, trained from birth in the art of pruning. They wouldn't think of driving around town in those giant fossil fuel-consuming trucks that deploy gangs of mowers to quash nature's vertical ambitions.

Deer are too considerate to make a racket with leaf blowers. And instead of releasing a cloud of fumes to sting your nose, they leave behind discrete contributions of fertilizer. They do the landscaping for free, but have a strong independent streak, refusing to adjust their methods to an owner's wishes.

Deer are very sensitive. Even though I stood ten feet back from my bay window, I still had to freeze several times so as not to spook my subject. It's impressive how they are so observant and "in the moment"--a state of mind we too might more easily attain if we were further down the food chain.

When I stepped outside to shoo it away, it didn't flee back over the fence but instead ducked behind some shrubbery in a back corner, waiting for my next move.

Once it realized I was not a threat, but instead just another among Princeton's backyard paparazzi, it regarded me with what appeared to be disdain.

No longer feared, I went back inside without finding out from where it came into the yard.

It was interesting, though, to watch it at work, browsing maybe ten leaves of our oak-leafed hydrangia before moving on to munch some grass. Though I've heard stories of deer wiping out a gardener's favorite plants overnight, my experience is that animals generally lack a thoroughness, whether it be browsers or predators.

My theory with deer is that their alertness to the potential for attack makes a patient devouring of one shrub less adaptive than a few nibbles here and there. And if much of what they eat has some level of toxicity, browsing can help reduce the risk of consuming too much of any particular toxin at any one time. Light browsing also promotes quick recover by the plants, as long as there aren't too many deer visiting the same plant. This suggests that deer could actually be good stewards, if their population was in balance with the landscape.