Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Monarchs and a Mid-Summer Multitude of Wildflowers at the Barden

So, I was at the Barden today, that being the Botanical Art Garden in Herrontown Woods, and amidst all the positive energy of budding flowers I had a cynical thought. There are a couple spots around the Veblen Circle of wildflowers where milkweed has been spreading. Lots of leaves and none of them being eaten by monarch caterpillars--an all too common observation over the years. People say to plant milkweed to help the monarchs, but the monarchs aren't helping themselves to the milkweed. What gives? 

As if on cue, a monarch appeared an instant after I had that thought. Only the third I'd seen this summer, it was checking out the milkweed and other plants growing in the sunny openings of the Barden. There are many kinds of native flowers blooming right now, which I'll show photos of later in this post, but the monarch headed over to one in particular,

a buttonbush, whose tiny flowers form the shape of a golfball--a convenient surface upon which the pollinator can go from flower to flower, sipping nectar. For an insect it must be like an assemblage of Hold the Cone miniature ice cream cones, but no need for a freezer. 

Moments later, another monarch butterfly caught my eye, and this one was showing a more intense interest in the milkweeds. There are two types at the Barden--purple and common. Both kinds spread underground, creating clones with many stems--enough to support a whole gang of hungry caterpillars. The butterfly was landing on the edge of the purple milkweed leaves and dipping its abdomen under the leaf to lay an egg. 
After doing this a number of times, it headed elsewhere, allowing me to take a look. Not easy to see. There, in the lower left. 
Here's an egg a little closer up.

There's actually quite a bit going on underneath a milkweed leaf. Here was a whole cluster, which I'm guessing are the eggs of the milkweed tussock moth--another Lepidoptera that can stomach milkweed's cardiac glycosides. 

Of course, it's a hopeful sign to see a monarch laying those single eggs, but we saw this last year, and it didn't lead to any sightings of caterpillars later on. It's possible the eggs are getting eaten by ants and spiders. A complex food web can have its perils, and it's interesting to note that milkweed that once grew in farm fields (in the days before Roundup-Ready corn and soybeans) might have had better monarch survival due to there being less predators in that simplified landscape. 

Still, we can hope that this is the year when the Barden does its part to build monarch numbers in preparation for their perilous flight back to Mexico in the fall.

Another sweet sight today, again not captured in a photo, was the pair of hummingbirds that landed on a wire cage just five feet away. Hummingbirds, in my experience, actually spend a lot of time perching, which makes sense given how intense is their flight. Their presence was the answer to a question overheard at the checkout counter at the Whole Earth Center: "Has anyone seen any hummingbirds?" Like monarchs, they also have to negotiate a difficult migration every year.

Maybe they were attracted to the tubular flowers of wild bergamot, 

or beebalm, or jewelweed.

What follows here is a documentation of all the flowers seen blooming right now in the Barden, as the midsummer diversity kicks in. After all the work of weeding and planting, there's pleasure in simply walking the paths and appreciating all that is growing so enthusiastically. 

There's a lot to document. These signs, created by Inge Regan, offer four species to look for. When learning plants, it's good to focus on a few at a time. 

For those more familiar, we've brought together some 40 species that bloom in mid-summer, some of them shown below. Maybe you can walk the pathways and see how many you can find. We're trying to figure out how to pot up all the excess and make them available to visitors to take home.

To see some of the other species showing their stuff this time of year, click on "read more", below.

Friday, July 09, 2021

Some Early July Flower and Insect Sightings at Herrontown Woods

Though the bottlebrush buckeyes in this photo have been blooming in the Botanical Art Garden (Barden) for a couple years now, this photo could not have been taken last year. The gazebo in the background is a new arrival as of last December, and the pin oak behind it can be seen heavily flagged this year by the egg laying of periodical cicadas. 

Those features were not the reason for the photo, however, which was taken because of an insect that requires a zooming in to see.

The Bottlebrush buckeye blooms attract clearwing moths, which do an excellent imitation of a hummingbird in appearance and flight.

Another plant named for the bottlebrush shape of its flowers is bottlebrush grass, also blooming now at the Barden. The wind-pollinated flowers of grasses and sedges lack color, but can still be appreciated for their shape. Bottlebrush grass is called a cool season grass because it greens up early in spring and blooms before the depths of summer. Many other native grasses are of the warm season variety, like Indiangrass, big and little bluestem, broomsedge, and switchgrass. Dominating tallgrass prairies of the midwestern states, they get a late start in the spring and grow through the summer, reaching maturity in the fall. (Turfgrasses have the same categories, though the grasses aren't native. Most lawns around here are cool-season grasses, with bermuda grass being a warm season grass that turns brown in winter.)

Though many species at the Barden have been planted, narrowleaf mountainmint apparently found its way in on its own, growing along one of the paths.

Necessary for the prospering of these summer wildflowers is an opening in the tree canopy where sunlight can reach the ground. Though people often equate habitat health with trees, we actively remove many young trees in the Barden that would otherwise grow up to shade out all these herbaceous species that insects depend upon for summer sustenance. 

Because of this active management, you can look up from the Barden and see some open sky--rare in Princeton open space lands.

Growing on its own, in what few openings occur naturally at Herrontown Woods, is a very subtle green-fringed orchid, here protected from the deer by a small cage. 

And what's blooming in summer in the deep forest that makes up the great majority of Herrontown Woods? I found this one tiny flower in a stream. Local botanist Elizabeth Horn helped me identify it as Water-pimpernel--Samolus valerandi in the
Theophrasta Family. 

The take-home lesson here is that woodland openings are important for summer biodiversity. Given the lack of natural disturbance by wildfire or the long-gone megafauna, it's up to us to create and sustain it. 

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

The Dragonflies and Damselflies of Rogers Refuge

I still remember the astonishment I felt when I first climbed the observation tower at Rogers Refuge in Princeton, and looked out upon this vista, so unlike anything else in town. This expanse of cattails and wild rice, long valued as a birding mecca, remains a gem primarily due to the work of a small group of volunteers, currently led by Lee and Melinda Varian. Grants from the Washington Crossing Audubon help keep invasive species at bay, and Laurie Larson has compiled the site's history and features at rogersrefuge.org, including lots of bird info and an ecological assessment I did back in 2007.

This summer, Hopewell Valley science teacher Mark Manning and his son are working on a new list for Rogers Refuge, this time of Odonata, a.k.a. dragonflies and damselflies. Mark's knowledge of nature is broad and deep, as became evident during a wonderful walk he led at Herrontown Woods a couple years ago. Below is a preliminary list of species he and his son have found during their explorations this summer. The photo is of a black-shouldered spinyleg.

Rogers Refuge Odonata List as of 6/26/2021-Mark Manning

Ebony jewelwing

Blue-fronted dancer

Violet dancer

Powdered dancer

Blue-tipped dancer

Double-striped bluet

Familiar bluet

Turquoise bluet

Fragile forktail

Eastern forktail

Common green darner

Comet darner

Unicorn clubtail

Black-shouldered spinyleg

Lancet clubtail

Common baskettail

Eastern pondhawk

Slaty skimmer

Widow skimmer

Twelve-spotted skimmer

Painted skimmer

Great blue skimmer

Blue dasher

Eastern amberwing

Common whitetail

Carolina saddlebags


Total: 26

Thursday, July 01, 2021

"Among Trees" Theater Event July 15, and Weekly Yoga at Herrontown Woods

The Friends of Herrontown Woods will be hosting its first ever outdoor theatrical event, "Among Trees"--an evening of songs, scenes, and more--next to Veblen House in Herrontown Woods on Thursday, July 15 at 7pm. The event is free and all are welcome. Actors of some renown, Vivia Font and Ben Steinfeld, are organizing the event, which is co-sponsored by the Friends of Herrontown Woods and Princeton Public Library with additional support from The Lewis Center for the Arts and Small World Coffee.

Submissions of scripts are also welcome, due by July 5. Here is the actors' submissions request:
Share a short piece of writing (scene, poem, passage)--in english or espanol--on the Herrontown Woods, trees, nature, or conservation and if selected, have it performed by professional actors in a live celebration of nature and space at the Herrontown Woods in Princeton, July 15, at 7pm. Email submissions to amongtrees2021@gmail.com. Submissions accepted through July 5.

WEEKLY YOGA CLASSES: On July 3, Gemma of Gratitude Yoga will begin leading weekly yoga classes at Herrontown Woods next to Veblen House. The classes will be on Saturdays at 11am, and are free.  Registration is encouraged. All donations will go to support the work of the Friends of Herrontown Woods.

Spotted Lanternflies at the Barden

While periodical cicadas have been the most noticeable insects at the Botanical ARt garDEN in Herrontown Woods, the nymphs of spotted lanternflies have been congregating quietly on a few select plants. Our observations confirm what's widely stated, that the spotted lanternflies prefer to spend their quality time on Ailanthus, also known as Tree of Heaven, a tree introduced long ago to the U.S. from Asia. 

I've been going around, cutting the sprouts of the Ailanthus in an effort to at least discourage the lanternflies' favorite plant.

Another asian species, the ever so spiny Japanese aralia, is also attracting a few of the lanternfly nymphs, but not nearly as many. That, too, gets cut to the ground.
Princess tree had none, though it too hearkens from east Asia. You may notice this species making dramatic, large-leaved root sprouts along the canal and elsewhere. Scroll down at this post about towpath wildflowers to see a photo of a princess tree's root sprout's improbable growth.

All three of these nonnative species persist in the Barden as sprouts that we cut down. It would be nice to think that reducing the number of ailanthus and Japanese aralia will discourage the lanternflies as well. 

Among native species the spotted lanternfly is attracted to, a friend has a grape vine that is attracting a lot of lanternflies. She tricks the nymphs into jumping into bottles of soapy water. 

Here's a post from last August with more info on the lanternflies

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

What's Bloomin' As June Ends

As June draws to a close, and the song of the cicada fades into history for another 17 years, here are some of the flowers blooming in my yard and in sunny openings at Herrontown Woods. 

Purple milkweed is less common than the common milkweed--a rare example of common names making sense. It spreads underground a little too aggressively, like the common one, but has a richer color to the bloom and slightly narrower leaves. Its blooms go through an evolution of color as they form--a very nice feature. We (that's the first person singular form of "we") found it growing near Veblen House and transplanted some to the Veblen Circle of wildflowers at the Barden (Botanical Art Garden).

Foreground here is another native milkweed, butterflyweed, which is lower growing and doesn't spread underground. Rarely seen in the wild around here (a couple specimens in the Tusculum fields that may still be there), I've seen it mostly in midwestern prairies with black-eyed susan and other prairie wildflowers.

The red in the background is beebalm, another incredibly bright and beautiful native wildflower, seen in gardens more than in the wild. It spreads underground, but not in a dominating way. We'll see if hummingbirds come to visit after their long migration.

Most people know the purple coneflower, from gardens rather than in the wild. 

Less known is the fringed loosestrife, not to be confused with the invasive and unrelated purple loosestrife. Fringed loosestrife has a shy flower that faces downward, yet the plant itself is surprisingly aggressive, and should only be planted where it can't spread. Yet another example of a native wildflower that is relatively rare in the wild yet gets rambunctious in a garden. Other examples would be groundnut, virgin's bower, and bladdernut. 

This photo doesn't do it justice, but here is tall meadowrue growing in a sea of jewelweed. The orange tubular flower of the jewelweed is visible in the lower left. Deer love to graze on the jewelweed, which is a native annual that often is seen trying to compete with Japanese stiltgrass in the wild. Hummingbirds love the jewelweed flowers, which keep appearing throughout the summer, and kids love to explode the springloaded seedpods. The tall meadowrue flowers need to be viewed up close to appreciate their subtle beauty, with each one bursting like a miniature firework.
One of the easiest plants to grow and take care of is the common daylily. We (again, first person singular form of we) planted the extension with them, and also the autumn joy stonecrop. They take zero care, and spend the month telling passersby to have a nice day. Each flower lasts a day, so you can cut some stems, put them in a vase, and have a steady stream of flowers inside as well, as each bud opens in series. Not native but doesn't spread or escape to the wild.

Among native shrubs, bottlebrush buckeye is doing its version of glorious, 
along with oak-leaved hydrangia. I've created a grove of these hydrangias by looking under the original shrub for sprouts or rooted limbs that could be dug and replanted nearby to quickly form new shrubs.
Maybe this year we'll get around to picking the elderberries, if the birds don't beat us, and make a delicious elderberry pie. 

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

Chance Encounters with Trees in Lambertville and New Hope

My awareness of trees made me a mixed bag as a companion on a recent visit to Lambertville. The same eye that spots nature's wonders makes it hard to ignore tragedy.

My first find was a red mulberry tree, encountered on the Lambertville side of the bridge, draping itself over the canal. My daughter and I gorged on the berries.

Most mulberry trees grow straight up, leaving the abundant berries frustratingly out of reach, but this one grows right out of the old stone wall of the canal. Suspended above the water, its limbs grow horizontally towards the sidewalk, making for a beautiful presentation of berries to passersby.

The view down the Delaware River from the bridge was glorious, the air above the long-traveled water fresh and richly scented. It was a time to be positive, to focus on the upside, but I couldn't help scrutinizing that seemingly verdant distant hillside. 

There, mixed in with the green, was evidence of the massive dieoff of ash trees--a profound moment in history that we are living through, ever since the Emerald ash borer hitchhiked to America in the wood of packing crates twenty years ago. 

There are immense ash trees perched on the bluff overlooking the river, like the grove on the left here that shaded us as we began our leisurely walk across the bridge. They are still green enough to deceive most people, but will end up like those just to their right in the photo. These observations could have triggered thoughts of past dieoffs that transformed our forests, marginalizing once dominant trees like American chestnut and elm, but

fortunately, there was a more positive tree story to shift to. Walking across the bridge, I noticed an improbably large tree rising above the houses along the shore in New Hope that looked to be flourishing. Later, I ducked down an alley to have a closer look. A bicentennial plaque in front of it says it was alive at the time of the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. That makes it more than 234 years old.

A man living next to it, who grew more friendly once he realized we were interested in the tree, said it's a willow oak. 

When I lived in North Carolina, we had many willow oak trees. Conveniently, their narrow leaves would settle in nicely with the pine needles, and after a few years I let that mix of leaves and needles replace the lawn as a pleasing surface for the yard. 

Some of the branches of this specimen would be impressive trees on their own.

New Hope prospered early on because of the ferry, and also because of the mills powered by the steady springfed waters of the resident stream. Tucked behind the Bucks County Playhouse, which used to be a mill, this dam frames a scenic, misty cove. A great blue heron stood stockstill, scrutinizing the falling waters, waiting for the stream to deliver dinner.

As if it were an old friend, I pointed out the native indigo bush lining the shore below the theater. I didn't get much of a response from my companions, but for me, knowing the plants makes it possible to feel familiarity even in a place where one knows no one at all, and makes an extraordinary place all the more extraordinary. 

Saturday, June 05, 2021

PrincetonNatureNotes on TV: An Interview on Storyline about Periodical Cicadas

I was delighted to be interviewed by Princeton TV for their weekly Storyline series. They call this segment about cicadas "The Great Awakening." Patricia Trenchak hosts the series, and George McCollough did the filming/editing.

In addition to the Storyline series, a scroll down the screen at PrincetonTV.org brings up Donna Liu's video called "Princeton's Water Story," which tells where Princeton's drinking water comes from; a League of Women Voters video of a primary candidates' forum--useful for prepping to vote this coming Tuesday--a Riverwatch series that gives an update on the decline in the population of red knots--an amazing bird that migrates from patagonian Argentina up to the arctic each year, with a very important stopoff for refueling in NJ--and other timely matters. 

Storyline The Great Awakening from Princeton TV on Vimeo.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

17 Year Cicadas Rise to the Occasion

It's a good thing the lawnmower refused to start on Monday, because on Tuesday morning, carrying our aging dog down the patio steps to the backyard, I saw that the 17 year cicadas had emerged overnight, and had used the long grass stems as a perch upon which to molt. 
They clung to the stems motionless, their new exoskeletons hardening, their wings drying in the morning sun. Were those brand new red eyes looking at me, or at everything all at once? Beside them was the empty shell of their former selves--the nymphs that had lived the past 17 years underground in patient immaturity, chowing down on tree roots. 

The night before, my daughter had heard the rustlings of leaves as she sat on the front steps. As dusk turned to dark, the million Magicicada march to adulthood had begun.

The immature nymphs had been preparing for this moment for some time, plotting their upward mobility, each having dug a tunnel to the surface. We had encountered them for weeks prior, slicing through their tunnels while digging holes, exposing their excavations while moving wood. I imagined them all stationed some distance down their tunnels, facing up, sensing the temperature of the air above them and the ground around them, ready to respond with fascinating unanimity to a cue only they could feel. 

I decided to bone up on them. What was wikipedia like 17 years ago? That which once was ridiculed, like "made in Japan" or "made in China," has become the information equivalent of what Deep Blue became in chess. Miraculously, it has evolved into a remarkably accurate and thorough source of information, encyclopedic, as it 'twere. I was sure people would find a way to mess it up. But no. Great to be wrong sometimes. Could this capacity to filter out the worst inclinations of humanity be applied to other areas of the internet?

Scrolling down through the wikipedia page on "periodical" cicadas, my simplistic assumption that 17 year cicadas emerge everywhere in the same year was blown out of the water. There are many different "broods" in the U.S., each with a different timing. In any given year, there's a brood of 17 or 13 year cicadas emerging somewhere. Virginia has seven different broods. New Jersey has three. Princeton's cicadas are part of the "great eastern brood," which extends from New York down to Georgia and out to Illinois. Is it called great because the brood extends over such a large geographic area, or simply because Princeton is included? We don't know. 

One thing the wikipedia entry doesn't explain is why I would have documented a considerable emergence of periodical cicadas in Princeton in May of 2017. The closest emergence in the wikipedia chart for that year was in North Carolina.

Can we eat them? I love this short article in the Smithsonian, which gives tips for gathering and cooking. I didn't take it personally when the article states that "Females are preferable for their protein-filled abdomens, while males offer little substance." The author of the article, someone named Twilight, must have enjoyed crafting sentences like "Marinating live bugs in Worcestershire sauce also helps weed out guys." It got me to wondering if I, too, would collapse if slow-cooked in vinegar, while the ladies all around me grew more tender by the minute.

One thing's for sure, this will be the most photographed generation of 17 year cicadas ever. For the next month or two, while their bus-with-wings bodies fill the air outside, they'll also be zipping around in posts, texts and tweets.

There's lots to read about why their periodicity (13 or 17 years) is in prime numbers. And why kill so much time underground before emerging en masse? It certainly makes it hard for predators like cicada killer wasps to expand their numbers sufficiently to take advantage of the sudden abundance of prey. Kill time or be killed--that's the logic.

And very interesting to read that moles do well the year prior to the emergence, as the cicada nymphs grow in size in preparation for their coming out party. Might the many moles feasting on growing cicada nymphs underground have had something to do with all the digging up of lawns by foxes, skunks, and raccoons reported last fall?

Trees are going to take a hit, as the female cicadas start cutting into twigs to lay their eggs. I remember seeing twigs littering the ground seventeen years ago, leaves still green, particularly under oaks. And I remember wondering what kind of world those cicadas would find when they next emerged, given the radical changes in climate we've set in motion. Thus far, not so much change in New Jersey. We've been lucky so far. I worry, though, as the mass combustion continues, and our deceptively shallow atmosphere fills with the invisible, transformative gases--the exhalations of an economy at odds with the nature we depend upon. More personally, it didn't even occur to me, seventeen years ago, to wonder if I'd be around for the next emergence. Now, that distant rendezvous is harder to take for granted. Cicadas aren't the only species playing a numbers game. It would feel better, this personal passing of years, if we weren't taking many of the glories of nature down with us. Whatever Happened to Forever is a one minute play I wrote that deals with this, at 8:49 in this video

This awareness of future endings stirred me to live this moment in cicada history more intensely. Eating dinner on the patio, I became aware of a prickly sensation on my legs. Normally, I would have brushed them off. Instead, wishing to experience their emergence fully, I let them climb. People have given me various nicknames over the years--"plantas", "the plant man"--and it's starting to look like even the insect world thinks I'm a tree. 

At one point, around the time I was polishing off my last shish kabob, I had six of them climbing the mountain of me. They had trouble with my hair, with most falling off before reaching the deceptive summit of my knee. But one was successful in making a nearly full ascent, climbing up to my shoulder, then ascending my neck and cheek. Only my sideburn and hairline proved unsurmountable, at which point it fell off, only to begin the climb again. 

After dark, I went out back to have another look at the lawn. A few more had climbed the grassblades. As they emerged from their shells, they showed two black spots just above the eyes, like dark eyebrows. But the unmowed lawn proved not to be the really big show.

Things really got interesting when I happened to look among the perennials. This purple coneflower looked like a Christmas tree with cicada ornaments, in all phases of metamorphosis. 

There's a bit of acrobatics to their molting. They do a slowmo backflip out of the shell, then bend up and grab their old skin, clinging to the shell of their former selves as they pull the rest of their abdomen out to hang free. Then it's a matter of unfolding and slowly expanding the wings, which look like little nubbins at first. 

A lot can go wrong in this stage. Some had wings that didn't grow out right, with one or the other being shorter and misshapened. 

When you google the cicadas as food, a study comes up warning that cicadas can accumulate a lot of things during their 17 years of underground munching, one of them being mercury. I don't know if it's a big concern. Many of our foods have traces of mercury. But it's worth wondering whether deformations in cicadas during molting is increasing as we continue to dig chemicals out of the earth and spread them around.

Another cicada had the bad luck to attract one of the slugs that was also seen climbing up foliage last night.

Many were having trouble finding a good place to climb. One even hitchhiked into my room and tried to climb into this blog post.

By morning, the cicada ornaments on the purple coneflower "tree" had darkened. Their wings and exoskeletons will slowly harden over the next few days. Though the coming din may grow tiring, it's still pleasurable to read that the adult males gather in something akin to a men's choir to sing to the females. Examples of nature's abundance, more rare now, are stunning to behold. We're in the midst of one now.