Wednesday, August 08, 2018

A Walk Along the Bluffs at Half Moon Bay, California

These aren't just goats. These are goats for good. As an eastcoast naturalist dropped down onto a windswept trail overlooking the Pacific Ocean at Half Moon Bay, I immediately began speculating about what goats were doing here in this parched coastal prairie. What's to eat in this land where no rain comes all summer. Days are warm, nights are cool, the sun shines, with little variation beyond that.

I'd seen goat herds munching on kudzu and other invasive plants in North Carolina, and read that they're used to clear powerline right of ways in the northeast, so it's not a stretch to guess that they are assisting in habitat restoration here along the coast south of San Francisco. Fortunately, I have a friend in the habitat restoration business in California, Bruce Berlin, who could confirm my hunches, and also identify the plants I saw them eating (photos and names below). I know Bruce through his son Kyle, who was valedictorian at Princeton University this year. Kyle's speech is a beautiful thing, special in all kinds of good ways.

But back to the subject at hand, or foot. While most of the native plants are dormant during the summer dry season, introduced species like this jointed charlock are still green, making it possible to direct the goats' appetites towards eating the nonnatives.

People help too, organized by the Coastal Land Trust, but I'm guessing the goats they hire eat more invasives than any human herd could pull out.

"Goats for good" was a resonant phrase that popped into my head, but it turns out there is a real Goats for Good--a nonprofit that is making a better world, with goats. In fact, it's tempting to expand the goodness goats could do by organizing goat herders to descend upon Washington, D.C., for a Million Goat Munch. They'll gather on the mall for inspiring speeches, then be let loose in the hallways and offices of Congress, the White House and the Supreme Court, to consume all the papers filled with nonsense generated by people blinded by anti-government fervor.

It will be great, unless the goats also eat the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and whatever other useful documents still remain. Getting goats to be selective has always been a problem. Goats are most useful in highly degraded landscapes, which is probably what triggered the Million Goat Munch idea.

Though trees serve as windbreaks in the San Francisco area, historically the land was home to coastal scrub habitat that has become rare and requires work to bring back.

Habitat restoration is the means by which recovery can happen, but even this seemingly benign, uncontroversial activity has sometimes come under attack, most stridently in the San Francisco area, where lovers of the (Australian) eucalyptus have risen up in outrage when the trees get felled to help bring back the native flora. And the nonnative ice plant, shown here coating the cliff in monoculture fashion, can be attractive, particularly when in flower. It's an attractive tyranny, though, if viewed from the perspective of any other plant that might otherwise be able to grow there.

My friend Bruce, who makes his living doing habitat restoration in California, confirmed and expanded on my easterner's speculations:
"Glad you are enjoying the Coast of California.
Yes- many of the CA natives go dormant during our Summertime- though not all.
Yes- you are correct- most all of the plants you sent me are invasive non-natives that are opportunistic and problematic.
Yes- also- Goats and sheep have both been being used more and more to do weed control- and more often fire vegetation management in areas that are steep and inaccessible.
Those weedy grazing animals are also being used around ground mounted solar farms- but there they prefer the sheep, because goats have a tendency to hop up on the low- mounted Solar arrays !  
Here is the website I use to dial in on what plants historically occur there."

The Calflora website he mentioned looks to be an incredible resource for learning about and working with the plants of California.

Only one of the eight plants I photographed turned out to be native. This is typical of locations that were intensely farmed, then preserved. Weeds fill the void after farming stops. There may be some native plants mixed in, but they are likely as brown this time of year as the grass, awaiting winter rains to begin growing again.

Two of the plants--curly dock and bird's foot trefoil--are also common weeds in NJ.

Parting idea before the plant photos: Before releasing the goats into the habitat, rub native seeds into their fur so the seeds will slowly fall out and hopefully get planted "underhoof" as the goats walk the property. Or scatter native seed in the area before letting the goats in, so they will stomp them into the ground with their hooves.

Thanks to Bruce for IDs on these plants.

Bristly ox tongue

Jointed Charlock

 Curly dock

 Wild Oat

 Wild mustard

dense flowered primrose


 Birds foot trefoil

Monday, August 06, 2018

Champion Brearley Oak in its Glory

There's a magnificent black oak growing, growing, growing in an unlikely place along Princeton Pike. Like the Mercer Oak, Jr. just up the road at the Princeton Battlefield, this oak too is of such distinction that it has its own corral. Driving by recently, I couldn't resist pulling over into the new Bristol-Myers Squibb parking lot and walking down to take a closer look at how it's doing. This champion tree--so-called because it's by far the largest in the state--is thriving, standing like royalty, master of its domain, with full access to sunlight all around and the soil all below.

The crown overflows its 100 foot diameter corral. Each of its millions of leaves is glossy and beautifully sculpted, the acorns small, as if this giant tree were compensating for the lone osage orange tree up the way about half a mile, barely a quarter of the black oak's height but with softball-sized fruits.

You can see the location of the Brearley Oak marked on this map, just above the hyphen in Bristol-Myers Squibb, close to Princeton Pike. The tree stands at the southernmost point in the Lawrenceville Hopewell Trail--a trail large enough to have its own nonprofit and website.

Nearby, to the east and north, is Brearley House and a park named after a great meadow from colonial and Indian times, and which the oak may have been witness to. That meadow was likely natural in part, but also managed at first by American Indians, who tended to burn the landscape, the better to attract game with the nutrient-rich growth that sprouted in the fire's aftermath.

There was a time when an oak this massive, with 20+ foot circumference, and perhaps 80 feet tall, would have been the rule, not the exception, when much of America was managed by American Indians, with the help of fire. The oaks have fire resistant bark and decay-resistant leaves adapted to remain on the ground as fuel. Then, when a low, mild fire started by lightning or people comes along, the leaves carry the fire across the ground, which in turn kills the oak's thin-barked competitors but not the oak.

The red dots on the map below, from Charles Mann's 1491, indicate areas managed by American Indians with fire. There are lots of dots shown in what is now NJ.

Red dots are areas managed by American Indians with fire (from the book, 1491)

In colonial and pre-colonial times, an oak like this would have had a rich understory of wildflowers and grasses, adapted to the ever shifting patterns of sun and shade.

One of the limbs is so long that it's  supported by a post.

And a lightning rod is attached on either side.

I'd love to go there sometime with a group of people. We'd recline on lawnchairs and gaze upward, tracing with our eyes the limbs' ascent towards the sky. A tree is like a city, with thoroughfares and sidestreets and cul de sacs of leaves. It is a solid built of air, some of which it breathed in before we were a nation.

Ignoring busy Princeton Pike and the sterile corporate lawns that surround it, this black oak soaks up the sun, drinks deeply from below, dreaming green dreams of mighty landscapes past.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Joe Pye by the End of July

Judging from the corn fields around Princeton, the old adage "knee-high by the 4th of July" needs to be updated. Corn was at least head-high earlier in the month. The rhythm and rhyme can be applied to the classic mid-summer flowers of Princeton's floodplains, whether along the canal towpath or planted ten years ago on the higher ground at the Princeton High School ecolab wetland: JoePye by the End of July. That's Joe Pye Weed, which comes in several species, the most common around here seeming to be hollow-stemmed (not in the photo).

That's rose mallow hibiscus in the background of the first photo, thriving with its feet in water consistently supplied by the school's sump pump.

Wild senna is another classic mid-summer native flower, in the pea family. Planted in this case at the new botanical garden at Herrontown Woods, it has yet to be browsed by the deer. The white spires in the background are Culver's Root, a purchased native that I have yet to encounter growing naturally in NJ.

Another common mid-summer classic is cutleaf coneflower, not shown here, but popping out at the various places we've planted them in town.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

First Monarch Sighted at Herrontown Woods

A monarch graced our "Phoenix Garden" next to the Herrontown Woods parking lot with its presence on a bright, sunny morning yesterday, July 13. It took an interest in the purple coneflowers transplanted into the garden this spring, and offered evidence of the importance of the garden for sustaining pollinators in Princeton through the summer months when forests offer few flowers.

The sighting prompted an internet search for the latest on the monarch's status, with one longtime monarch tracker, Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch, predicting that weather conditions this year are thus far allowing monarchs to rebound somewhat from the historic lows of recent years.

If you google "monarch butterflies" and then click on "news", you'll find lots of articles, for instance about efforts to create better habitat for them in Iowa. There's research on the impact of higher CO2 levels in the atmosphere on monarch's health, and Chip Taylor's detailed blog posts at MonarchWatch describe how higher temperatures can impact migration.

We don't yet have milkweed growing at the garden, but there are patches of common and purple milkweed in clearings near the Veblen House that can provide food for monarch larvae. Places where sun reaches the ground, whether in people's yards or at the Phoenix Garden (so-called because it's planted in the opening made after storms blew down the white pine plantation at Herrontown Woods) are critical for sustaining the summer flowers and milkweed that monarchs need to reproduce.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Who's Been Eating Our Lilies? -- An Update on Deer in Princeton

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.

Shade Trees and a Cool Streets Contest

It's time to shine light on shade. If Princeton held a contest for the coolest, best shaded blocks, I'd nominate a couple blocks in my neighborhood. One is at the corner of Erdman Avenue and Tee-Ar Place, where four giant pin oaks, healthy despite the local prevalence of bacterial leaf scorch, extend their broad limbs southward and westward over the pavement.

Another is on Stanley Avenue, where some more healthy pin oaks are doing the job. On the left is a Norway Maple--not my favorite species, but in this case well placed to shade the pavement.

Having a contest would shine light, so to speak, on the importance of being strategic about where trees are planted. Some homeowners may understandably want to have sunlight reach a garden, or solar panels on the roof. Neither of these need conflict with optimizing shade where it is most important--over pavement, where the sun's light energy would otherwise be turned into heat when it hits blacktop, contributing to the urban heat-island effect.

A Turtle's Narrow Escape

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.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

9/11 Memorial Plantings

Stymied from reaching our intended destination of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden by various closed subways on a Sunday afternoon, we found ourselves close by the World Trade Center site, and decided to take a look. The footprints of the twin towers have each been turned into chasms where curtains of water fall from one depth down into a still deeper abyss. The symbolism is powerful--ascension transformed into endless descent. The curtains of water, played with by the wind, can sometimes appear to be pulling apart, as if something were about to be revealed, but the moment passes and the water returns to a uniform downward motion.

There is so much to grieve there, the lives lost on the site and on that day--their names etched into the frame of metal--and all the lives lost in distant lands due to the nation's skewed response in the years that followed. There is so much that I wish I could pull back up from the darkness at the center of the sunken pools.

But this post was to be about the plantings we saw, which were hundreds of swamp white oaks planted in rows. Swamp white oaks can be found occasionally planted along Princeton's streets, and growing naturally in low-lying forests. Strange that a species found naturally in water-logged lowlands would grow well in the dry, compacted soils of city streets, but the tree is adapted to the low oxygen levels that both soils share. Some of the 9/11 trees came from a NJ nursery that specializes in memorial plantings.

Water used to sustain the trees comes from underground cisterns that capture runoff.

Nearby is St. Paul's Cathedral, which improbably survived the crash of the towers. The cemetery behind the church is filled with headstones grown faceless with time.

Along the fringe of the cemetery grows a pure stand of what looks like a native sedge (on the right in the photo)--the sort that gets only a foot or so high and can form expansive, parklike sedge meadows in local woodlands.

NY City now grows many other unexpected echoes of native habitats, the most recent discovery being Brooklyn Bridge Park, where one of the trails runs along a beautifully maintained stream habitat packed with native species.

But that joy of diversity might be out of place at the 9/11 memorial and St. Paul's Cathedral, where the monocultures of swamp white oak and sedge seem intended instead to reinforce a uniform response of grief.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Duck Takes Nature Walk at Herrontown Woods

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.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Weeding a Rain Garden in June

The curb at the Westminster Choir College parking lot looks like a serpent, dipping low to allow runoff to enter a constructed raingarden where pollutants and trash are filtered out, and the water feeds the plants. The raingarden does a lot of environmental work, so maybe someone could do some work to take care of it? Care of installed raingardens is not something most landscape companies do, and so the task falls to a local volunteer with the required knowledge, or the raingarden fills with weeds and gets mowed down and becomes yet more boring lawn.

In this scene, blue vervain grows in the spaces left by the expanding redbud and tupelo trees.

Switchgrass makes billowy mounds.

The raingarden is doing better than it was a couple years ago when I adopted it, but there are still weeds to easily undercut with a shovel, like wild lettuce and curly dock.

And bindweed to pull that would otherwise grow over everything.

The mugwort was proactively dug out last year, but a few are still popping up. The pink in the photo is red clover, a non-invasive exotic that gets left in the mix.

A bedstraw species smothered an area ten feet across before being pulled up. This may be the native stickywilly (Galium aparine), but was being way too aggressive for the setting.

Here's the bindweed growing up and over a late-flowering thoroughwort that's worth protecting from aggression for its late summer flowers.

Not shown here is the crown vetch, another aggressive grow-over-everything weed.

White clover and dandelions would require more time to weed than this volunteer has.

One nice discovery, not remembered from previous years, is a swamp milkweed, which would have little chance of growing if the aggressive weeds weren't controlled.

Some Native White Flowers of June

Arrowood Viburnum (V. dentatum)

Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica)

A new one in the yard, and on this blog: foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)

Elderberry at the Princeton High School ecolab wetland