Saturday, January 08, 2022

A Mystery Tree Grows in Princeton

There's a small tree I've been encountering occasionally in Princeton woodlands, and no one thus far has been able to figure out what it is. I discovered it years ago, while preparing an ecological assessment for the Friends of Rogers Refuge. Over the past couple years, I've encountered a few younger versions in Herrontown Woods, and was finally moved to learn its identity. I thought it would be a simple matter to send some photos around to people particularly knowledgeable, and an answer would quickly be forthcoming. But no. This is turning into a botanical version of Stump the Stars.

I first saw it while taking that dirt road into Rogers Refuge, long known as a birding mecca just below the Institute Woods. The photo shows it in full bloom, though you have to look really hard to see the clusters of small flowers.

As someone schooled in botany, my experience of driving is different from most people's. While keeping an eye on the road, a botanist is also keeping an eye on the texture, shape and color of vegetation streaming by. You learn to identify trees in an instant. Their seasonal bloom or fall color can make it easy, but even their overall growth form--their body language--can be enough. The army fatigue bark of sycamores is distinctive, running up a valley in winter. Or the blotch of blue a Princess Tree's blooms make among the trees lining a highway. 

Over time, what for most people registers only as a blur of greenery becomes instead a language to be read. Driving along, reading the language of the roadside out of the corner of my eye, I'll very occasionally see something outside of my vocabulary of plants. Sometimes I pass by a given spot many times before a particular flower or growth shape catches my eye and I just have to stop to take a closer look. 

That's how this mystery tree first caught my eye, while driving into Rogers Refuge some years back in the second week of May.

It has the kind of bloom that looks showy close up, but doesn't have much of an effect from a distance.

Though most seen elsewhere in town tend to be the size of shrubs, the specimen in Rogers Refuge is about 20 feet high, with a cluster of sizable trunks.
New growth is distinctive.

Fruits are red, and scarce considering all the blooms.

Mike Van Clef mentioned "another confusing non-native relative found at Jockey Hollow."

Bob Wells of Morris Arboretum sent a scholarly response, based on some but perhaps not all of these photos:

I have no doubt that this is one of the Aronias:

  • Rosaceae flower
  • Alternate, simple, elliptic leaf that comes to an acuminate point.
  • Small, even, serrated margins
  • Secondary veins disintegrate before reaching the margins
He referred to the texts by Dirr and Easton, particularly a quote from Easton: “Chokeberries remind us that scientific taxonomy is only the least imperfect of the tools that we have fashioned to help us classify and understand organisms”

I'd love to call it red chokeberry and declare the case closed, but the leaves don't look or feel quite like any red chokeberry I've ever seen.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Native Chestnuts in Princeton--the Next Generation

Many of us have lived our whole lives without seeing a mature native American chestnut tree. An excellent NY Times Magazine article described it as a true gift of nature, the perfect tree, growing straight and tall, with rot-resistant wood, and bearing nuts that were easily gathered and eaten, sustaining wildlife and people alike. My first encounter with the American chestnut was the sight of their fallen trunks in a Massachusetts forest, 70 years after the fungus that causes chestnut blight was discovered in NY city in 1904. The massive trunks I saw, lying on a slope in the shade of young white pine, were among the billions that the accidentally imported fungus would ultimately kill in the U.S. Since the roots survive the fungus, there was still a living community of underground chestnut trees beneath our feet in that Massachusetts forest. One of the roots had sent up a sprout about twenty feet tall--promising, one would like to think, but its slim trunk was already ringed by the fungus, its fate sealed before it could bear nuts. 

One of the projects I'm involved in is reintroducing native chestnuts to Princeton. The initiative began in 2009 with an email from Bill Sachs, a Princetonian with considerable expertise when it comes to nut-bearing trees. Bill reported that Sandra Anagnostakis, "one of (if not the) world’s leading experts on the pathology of American chestnut," had agreed to supply us with disease-resistant, hybrid American chestnut trees. Sandra's efforts to breed resistant native chestnuts at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station over many decades was apparently unconnected to the American Chestnut Foundation. The trees were 15/16th native, and Bill with occasional help from me and others proceeded to plant them at the Princeton Battlefield, Harrison Street Park, the Textile Research Institute, Mountain Lakes and Herrontown Woods. 

Some fared better than others. Many, despite having been bred for resistance, nonetheless struggled with the blight that had laid the mighty tree low a century ago. This fall, however, paralleling our work to bring back native butternuts, one of the chestnut trees has borne fertile seeds.  

Bill made repeat visits to the tree to collect the nuts as they ripened. The deer likely got many, but he managed to gather quite a few, some of which he encouraged me to cold stratify. Stratification has always been an intimidating concept for me, suggesting sophisticated manipulation to get a seed to germinate, but in this case it turned out to be not much more than stuffing some seeds in a bag of moist peat moss and leaving it in the back of the refrigerator for awhile. 

The tree, hosted by TRI near Carnegie Lake in eastern Princeton, bore generously despite significant pruning by the periodical cicadas early in the growing season. 

This past summer a friend had sent me a photo of another chestnut tree that, being smaller, was much more affected by the cicadas' egg-laying activities. They cut into stems to lay their eggs, which ends up killing the foot or two of stem beyond where the eggs are deposited. 

We'll see how these various trees do over time, and if a second generation of these mostly native chestnuts comes into being. The NY Times article was mostly about efforts to develop a blight-resistant American chestnut through genetic modification. That thirty year project, with a geneticist named William Powell as the main protagonist, has been successful. They managed to find a gene in wheat that confers resistance when inserted into the chestnut's genome. 

Adding one gene would seem a much more precise and less intrusive means of correcting a century old wrong than adding many genes, most of which are irrelevant to improving resistance, from asian chestnuts. But don't expect these ever so slightly and efficiently modified native chestnuts to be available any time soon. There are strict regulatory hurdles that must be overcome. 

For me, the situation demonstrates two powerful forces in the human world. One is the fear of the slippery slope. Would an elegant genetic fix for the American chestnut open the doors to a wave of less admirable genetic modifications of our world? The other powerful force is our focus on regulating intentional change, while allowing unintentional change to run rampant. While the government spends years deliberating over one gene being added to the native chestnut tree, global trade is introducing an ongoing wave of new organisms to the country, any one of which could be the next emerald ash borer or spotted lanternfly. 

In the meantime, we'll be thankful for the mostly native chestnuts we have, and see what we can grow.

Below is more info I've taken from some of Bill Sachs' emails. Click on Read More. 

Monday, December 20, 2021

The Artistry of Local Environmentalist Liz Cutler

Update, Jan. 8, 2022: Liz sent me a link to her fascinating talk about the when, where, and how of her pressed flower arrangements. She describes how her first one was done as a gift to a neighbor who helped her out during the pandemic, and how the artwork has changed the way she looks at nature. 

Many of us who know Liz Cutler for her environmental initiatives in Princeton over the years got a nice surprise recently. It turns out that she is also a self-taught artist. Her beautiful pressed flower arrangements are on exhibit at the Princeton Public Library through the end of the year. You can also feast your eyes on a digital gallery

By putting her name into the search box on this website, I was able to bring up some of her many environmental initiatives. There's OASIS (Organizing Action on Sustainability in Schools), which is an extension of her role as Sustainability Director for Princeton Day School, where she also teaches english literature. 

This pressing is called "Oakleaf Hydrangia Gradient," referring apparently to the transition from dark to light and back to dark again as she captures the many shades of color that Oakleaf Hydrangias exhibit in the fall. 

I may have first met Liz back in 2007 when she brought some of her students to help me remove invasive species, back when I was resource manager at Mountain Lakes preserve. That group was called ENACT. If you're impressed with her talent for acronyms, it's even more telling that action is a recurrent theme. Liz is all about making things happen, particularly when it comes to engaging youth on environmental issues, as in her High School Eco-Conferences over the years. We also served together on the Princeton Environmental Film Festival committee.

To find the exhibit at the library, head up to the second floor, take a left and then a right. For anyone interested in buying either the originals or the prints, here is what Liz told me recently. I'm sure the library has additional information. Congratulations to Liz Cutler on this wonderful exhibit.
"Many pieces are sold, some are not. I'm also selling prints of them. The good thing about prints is the color never changes. The good thing about the originals, other than being 3D is their color evolves over time because they're organic and if you like that sort of thing about nature--which I do--then originals are best. Kind of depends on your point of view."


Sunday, December 19, 2021

Silent Fall -- A Question About Songbirds

There was a question earlier this fall about the scarcity of songbirds on birdfeeders. Casey, whom I've known since our days on the Princeton Environmental Commission, wrote me on October 21:

"I am curious about the lack of birds - any birds - in our yard and on our feeders. It has been a couple of days now since I've seen any at all. Even walking down on the boardwalk across from the Great Road was silent yesterday. Clearly worrisome. Do you have any thoughts or theories? I figure if anyone does it will be you!"

Well, though I am out in nature a lot, I'm pretty absorbed in plant life and don't tend to notice birds unless they make themselves heard or seen. Our backyard is full of native plants to offer seed and berries, but we don't get around to stocking the birdfeeder. There are times, though, this summer and fall, when I've wondered if past years had been so quiet. 

I reached out to some friends who are close observers of birdlife, and got contrasting responses. This from neighbor Pat Palmer, who is a keen observer of birds in her backyard:

"We have a variety of birds, but far fewer than in previous years. It is migration season, so I think we are not seeing as many migrants as in previous years, but may only be seeing our resident local birds (due to our feeder).

Two (I think) years ago, there were so few birds in fall that we were in despair, but some came back by winter and it has been moderate since then. I would say last year was more (in fall) than the previous year. And this year is less than last year.

There is no doubt in my mind that this is a sign of declining numbers of songbirds. Just about the saddest thing I can imagine. We diligently feed and groom our yard to be good songbird habitat, and still so very few. 

We have two bird houses that used to fully occupied 365 days a year. They sometimes have sparrows, sometimes wrens. This year, no occupants. That is ominous. We did have a wren but it was just passing through. We have a few sparrows but they don't use the houses.

We are watching the natural world start to suffer from all the pollution in the environment, as well as climate change, I think."
Laurie Larson, who maintains the website for Princeton's birding mecca, Rogers Refuge, sent a different take on the situation: 
"I have people asking me about that as well. This summer’s weather was good for growing natural bird food… In years of abundant fruit and seed production, birds prefer natural foods over feeders. Wait until the berries and rose hips are gone, and the birds will probably return.

And have you noticed a lot of Blue Jays this year? Not at feeders, but in the woods. Some parts of the state are enjoying a huge acorn crop, and that always attracts Blue Jays."
I don't see these two responses as contradictory, but as part of a larger phenomenon driven by the supercharging of the atmosphere with carbon dioxide--a 50% rise in CO2 concentration since the beginning of the industrial revolution. The warmer weather allows us to work outdoors deeper into fall and winter. Some species are benefitting from the abundant summer rains. And yet along with this autumn comfort and productivity there is a dread, a sense of foreboding, at the radical changes being unleashed. 

Monday, December 13, 2021

Pulling Jetbead

When I first encountered this flower eight years ago, growing near the small red barn in Herrontown Woods, I didn't look very closely and thought it was mock orange. A few years ago, the town hired the Invasive Species Strike Team to treat some non-native species that are just starting to spread through local preserves. To my surprise, this small shrub, which they called jetbead, was one of their targets. The aim was to catch invasions early, so that a small problem wouldn't become a big problem later on.

Last week we were giving Princeton's new Open Space Manager, Cindy Taylor, a tour of Herrontown Woods, and as we approached the barn we happened to see this flush of green amidst the browns and grays of late fall. 
I took a closer look and realized that we were seeing seedlings of jetbead. The Strike Team had killed the mature shrubs, but there were seeds in the ground that had since sprouted. Though many invasive shrubs have spread throughout the preserve, this infestation of jetbead was only a couple hundred feet across. 

Yesterday, on our regular Sunday morning workday, volunteers pulled out every last jetbead we could find. The timing was perfect, because the seedlings were easy to spot and the soft soil made them easy to pull. A few more days and the leaves might have fallen off, making identification much more difficult.

Taking care of a nature preserve seldom provides such a clear sense of accomplishment. Usually the problems we face are overwhelming, and we can only chip away at the edges. It shows how important it can be to catch problems early and time interventions well.

After a morning of wild gardening, our spirits buoyed by a light-filled woodland and a sense of accomplishment, it was time to take pleasure not only in presence but also in absence.

Some notes:
Jetbead (Rhodotypos scandens) -- This NC State website also calls it "white Kerria", which fits, if you've ever seen Kerria.

Shrub honeysuckle (Lonicera sp.) is another invasive shrub that can still have a few green leaves this time of year, but its leaves are not toothed. 

Mock Orange (Philadelphus coronarius) -- I know mock orange as an ornamental shrub that can still be found occasionally in backyards. Not to be confused with osage orange, or orange, for that matter.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Butternut Redux--A New Generation Bears its First Crop

This has been a breakthrough year for those of us working to bring back the native butternut--a species laid low by an introduced canker disease.. 

Twelve years after I helped Bill Sachs collect one of the last known harvests of native butternuts in Princeton, the new generation has finally born a crop of its own. Butternuts, also called white walnuts, or Juglans cinerea, bear nuts similar in look to black walnuts, but are oval rather than round. 

Bill continued to harvest and plant butternuts from the TRI property for a couple more years, but that pair of trees was then lost, with one blown down and the other cut down, ironically as part of an environmental remediation of contaminated soil. Most of the other known specimens, solitary so unable to bear, at Herrontown Woods and Mountain Lakes, have since been lost as well, lending all the more importance to this new generation of trees, grown by Bill and planted around town. 

We planted multiple trees, for cross pollination purposes, at Mountain Lakes, Herrontown Woods, Harrison Street Park, and at the TRI property where the seeds had originally come from. 

The saplings needed to be caged, to protect them from the deer. I made the mistake of removing a cage when a tree was tall enough that the deer could no longer reach the leaves. Bucks proceeded to rub the bark off the trunk, reducing a promising tree to root sprouts. A post from a couple years ago tells of some of the persistence required to nurse a new generation towards maturity. Along with deer, the young butternuts have been in danger of being smothered by fast-growing Japanese honeysuckle and grape vines, and trees like sweetgums and mulberries that rise quickly to fill the sunny openings the young butternuts need to grow.  Gardening, even wild gardening with native species, teaches the necessity of followup. 

This year, the butternuts had to deal not only with the 17 year cicadas' heavy pruning, but also the expanding presence of spotted lanternflies. 

Adding to the young trees' burden were some galls, which Bill said were most likely caused by walnut leaf gall mites

But despite all of that, the long awaited flowering of this new generation was spotted in July, and a few nuts collected in fall that appear to be viable, offering hope of yet another generation to come.

This fall's harvest is mostly being planted to grow more trees. Bill plants the butternut seed "in tall pots to be kept outdoors for the winter. This has worked well in the past."

Here are some additional tidbits gleaned from correspondence with Bill. The "float test" is used to determine whether a nut is viable. If it floats in water, it lacks a viable seed inside.

Dehusking walnuts and butternuts:
"I don’t really know if it’s absolutely necessary to dehusk walnuts or butternuts before a float test, though I think it is prudent. If you have a lot of nuts the best way to dehusk them is to use an old cement mixer with rocks and water… since I don’t have an old cement mixer, I use a piece of ½ inch plywood about 18 in by 6 in. I put a butternut or walnut in the driveway or street, put the plywood on top and use my foot with pressure to roll the nut under the plywood. (Use gloves to handle the nuts if you don’t want to stain your hands.) The husk comes off pretty easily. Then I put the largely dehusked nuts in a bucket of water and use a still wire brush to complete the cleaning."

Identifying butternuts: "Butternut bark is characteristically a lighter gray with broader ridges than black walnut (but not always). Easier to tell for sure from a twig with a terminal and a few lateral buds. If you slit the twig, butternut will have a dark chocolate-colored, chambered pith, and the leaf scars typically have a hairy fringe (or mustache) along the upper margin. When the leaves are still on the tree the leaf rachis will be tomentose or pubescent (hairy). Not sure if this carries over to fallen leaves on the ground in the winter. Finally, butternut trees often have poor form. In contrast, black walnut has a buff-pink chambered pith, no hairy fringes along the top edge of the leaf scars and the rachis is smooth (among other differences)."

Some additional reading recommended: 

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Walnut Art

A lot of people, when they hear the words "black walnut", will think of a tree that drops nuts large and heavy enough to be a hazard, is super frustrating to get any food from, and has the gaul (juglone, actually) to hamper the growth of plants unfortunate enough to find themselves growing beneath it. 

This merry crew has a richer take. Meet Ooh!, Totally!, and Ugh!, three well-crafted nuts who between them express the gamut of attitudes toward walnut trees. 

I applaud those endowed with the incredible patience needed to carve these faces (that would be squirrels), and a similar patience to search for the squirrels' underappreciated art amongst all of autumn's debris in the backyard (that would be my friends and occasional Ann Arbor hosts, Dan and Karen). 

Though they express the same common laments about their black walnut trees, they have at the same time become fascinated by the exceptionally hard and messy nuts that litter the ground every fall. 

As if developing a cottage industry, they gather the nuts, and extract the oils from the husks. 
Dan came up with a way to clean the oils off of the shells, using a forked spade as if he were churning butter. 

His motivation? To sand down some of the nuts to make picks that get an unusual sound out of his string instruments.

Their art-student daughter, Thea Bilich, demonstrated how the walnut ink works well for old master paintings.

All of which shows how a little curiosity and a spirit of experimentation can look beyond life's burdens to find a sky full of possibilities.

Saturday, November 06, 2021

The Long Evolution of Deer Hunting in Princeton

Most hikers in Princeton have by now encountered warning signs posted at various preserves, giving notice that it's bow hunting season. The season runs from September to February, and is limited to a select group of skilled hunters vetted by the town. They use elevated deer blinds located away from trails, so there should be no risk of errant arrows. The warning is useful for encouraging people to keep themselves and their dogs on the trails.

Hunting is not allowed on Sundays, and also now is not allowed on Saturdays from 10-2. More info at this link. For those in the Riverside neighborhood, there's also info online about hunting at the University-owned Butler Tract.

As a botanist helping to manage habitats in Princeton, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to manage the deer population. The deer prefer to eat native plant species, and too many deer leads to a decimation of the native flora. Into the void come nonnative plant species--stiltgrass, honeysuckle, winged euonymus, privet, etc.--that the deer reject. Over time, Princeton's preserved lands become increasingly inedible to the very wildlife  the land is intended to sustain.

A 2018 article in summarizes the dilemma. It mentions how Princeton gained national attention when passionate protests arose soon after the township hired professional hunters in 2000. Amateur hunting had not proved sufficient. An ecologist is quoted in the paper, raising the central point that the biggest human intervention was not hunting, but instead the extirpation of predators like wolves and cougars. Then, when deer hunting was also banned in 1972, the deer population began to explode. 

The resulting imbalance is analogous to what Rachel Carson describes when reckless use of pesticides began wiping out the predators that had until then held insect numbers in balance. She describes predators as "critically important," because they contribute to the "resistance of the environment" that helps keep populations in check. She also speaks of the "truly explosive power of a species to reproduce once the resistance of the environment has been weakened." High numbers of deer are due less to having been displaced from their traditional habitat than simply through their capacity to reproduce, and a lack of checks that would otherwise keep them in balance with the carrying capacity of the land.

Unless people want to bring back predators like wolves and cougars, it is up to us to fill the void in predators we ourselves have created.

The traumatic learning curve Princeton has gone through over the past 20 years is analogous to what the great conservationist Aldo Leopold experienced a century ago. Born in 1887, Leopold earned a forestry degree and was soon writing management plans for preserved federal lands out west. An extraordinary documentary of his life and legacy, Green Fire, tells of how he at first believed that killing wolves and other predators out west would create a hunter's paradise. Instead, the absence of predators led to severe habitat degradation as surging numbers of elk ate vegetation down to stubble. 

Leopold was a contemporary of Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen, who donated Princeton's first nature preserve back in 1957, and I wondered if Leopold might have influenced the Veblens in their founding efforts to preserve land in town. Leopold bought the land in Wisconsin later made famous by his book, the Sand County Almanac, around the same time the Veblens were acquiring land in Princeton. The parallels caused me to search for Leopold's name in the fabulous online resource, Papers of Princeton.

What popped up was not a visit by Leopold to Princeton, but instead references to Leopold in past discussions about controlling deer numbers in town. In 1987--100 years after his birth--and again in 1998, Aldo Leopold's name is used to lend weight to arguments in favor of using hunting to bring down the burgeoning numbers of deer and related automobile accidents. 

What we learn from this history is how long and hard the fight has been to get a town to collectively acknowledge truths that were known a century ago, and surely long before then by others possessing the knowledge and keen observation skills of an Aldo Leopold or a Rachel Carson. 

Reading the 1987 article was also a chance to witness some of the dedicated environmentalists of Princeton in action. Tom Poole, whom I knew from working with the Friends of Rogers Refuge, stated at a township meeting:
"In my view it is much more humane to take a deer with a shotgun than with the bumper of a car," Mr. Poole remarked. He added that last August, the Animal Control Officer, Al Heavener, had to kill 23 wounded deer. "He nearly quit his job."

Elizabeth Hutter was another active environmentalist at that meeting, and "traced her feelings about deer, from joy at their proximity to tolerance at the damage, to "annoyance, frustration and anger."

A beautiful letter to the Town Topics, written by Tom Poole in 1998, shows how long has been the road to deer management based on ecological realities. He also mentions in passing the annoyance of leaf blowers, which is only now, 23 years later, beginning to be addressed. Even more extreme in the slowness of progress from awareness of a problem to action to solve it, the threat of climate change was first raised nationally in 1988, but scientists were aware of this most devastating of imbalances long before that, and still there is no coordinated action after all that time. Interestingly, climate change is stymying efforts to control deer populations, since mild winters make it harder to attract deer to feeding stations. 

Any success we have at finally stirring action on long-festering problems owes thanks to those who were priming the pump decades ago. 

Click on "Read More" to read Tom Poole's letter.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Celebrating the Life of Dorothy Mullen

Many in Princeton and beyond knew and loved Dorothy Mullen, for her spirit, generosity, community activism, and her many initiatives, most notably the school gardens and the Suppers Program. 

A memorial service will take place this Saturday, Oct. 30, at 10am at the Presbyterian Church in Lawrenceville, NJ. The service will likely be very crowded, but there will also be an opportunity to witness the occasion via zoom

I wrote a song called Dorothy's Garden after seeing Dorothy for the last time, back in the fall of 2019. The song on the video starts about two minutes in. I will play a recording of the song at the open mic after the service, and recite the lyrics. Here's the sheet music, transposed to G for easier reading, and a post from a couple years ago about the garden she created in her front yard, which is now being tended by the new owner of her house.

Lyrics to Dorothy's Garden
Take a walk in Dorothy's garden, In the springtime in Dorothy's garden. Sleepy seeds in the dirt so mellow, Dreaming flowers of white and yellow. Come and see in the garden, Dorothy's garden, Kale and peas and carrots. And some peace you will find there, Always find where the weeds are a feint memory. There are children in Dorothy's garden, Finding free figs in Dorothy's garden. In the strawberry patch they linger. Quiet joy their presence brings her. And the bees on the asters, flying past her-- She is the master gardener. And the okra and sunflower feel her love As they grow towards the sun far above. Someone's learning in Dorothy's garden. Worms are churning in Dorothy's garden. Plants are turning in Dorothy's garden Into Suppers from Dorothy's garden. And the roots they will roam, always finding a home, In the loam, under Dorothy's garden.

Princeton Finally Plants its Fuel Tank Raingarden

The raingarden in front of the municipality's fuel tank on Witherspoon Street finally got planted. Like just about every piece of real estate in Princeton, large or small, this raingarden has a long and turbulent history. It was presumably created to receive runoff from a roof the town had built over the fuel tank. The roof was meant to protect staff from rain while they poured fossil fuel in their gas tanks, but spurred passionate complaints from neighbors, who complained about the visual blight upon a main entryway into town. 

Thus began a long period of deliberation and rethinking, leading to the removal of the much-maligned roof, and consideration of whether to spend even more money to move the raingarden somewhere else, for whatever reason.

While humans hemmed and hawed, nature began populating the bare dirt with various weeds, leading to a post on this blog called Princeton's Fuel Tank Raingarden Wannabe, identifying the various weeds and discussing which would be worth keeping. If one knows and loves plants--knowing and loving being very much intertwined--it's pretty easy to develop a new raingarden planting simply by editing what pops up on its own, augmented by taking excess plants from an existing raingarden and planting them in another. Planting one raingarden makes the next one all the easier to create at no cost beyond time spent.

The town has its own logic, however, for better or worse. The raingarden was left untended for a couple years until the brick facade disguising the fuel tank was completed, and then in mid-October a host of plants were purchased and installed, along with a thick layer of mulch. 

Soft rush were densely planted at the lower end, with purple coneflowers and black-eyed susans on the slopes. 

Though the men may not have been overjoyed at the task, it was good to see public works employees working with hand tools, away from all the rumbling machines that burn the fossil fuels hidden behind this raingarden. 

Beyond the benefits of raingardens--filtration of runoff, groundwater recharge, food for insects and birds--they are above all a quiet space. Raucous lawn mowers and leaf blowers are of no use in a raingarden, where only quiet tasks like weeding and planting are needed. 

The relentless racket of custodial lawncare that people so resent in our neighborhoods is the sound of machines simplifying and dominating nature while they feed climate change. When was the last time you saw an employee, public or private, quietly using hand tools in a garden? That's what made this scene along Witherspoon Street special. 

A Threatened Old Bridge, and Dead Fish Along Harry's Brook

We mostly hear about collateral damage, but there can be a lot of collateral discovery in the actions we take to care for nature or history. 

When I saw a young man named Galdino tuckpointing some stonework along Snowden Lane a couple weeks ago, I asked him if he would look at an old bridge that straddles a tributary of Harry's Brook just down the hill. 

Before a new bridge was built beside it in 1965, this old bridge was used by the Pynes of Drumthwacket to reach their horses at "Pyne Ridge", and by the Whiton-Stuarts, the Veblens and Einstein to reach what we now call Veblen House. The bridge carried Princetonians out to Herrontown Woods during its first years of existence.

It's a beautifully made bridge, built of arched stones, and as you can see it is starting to slowly come apart, flood by flood, stone by stone. If it were to collapse, the town would have a big mess on its hands, with the stream blocked by rubble.

I have suggested that the bridge be preserved, repaired, and used as part of a bike/pedestrian route to give the Little Brook neighborhood safe access to Smoyer Park and Herrontown Woods. Currently, anyone walking or biking needs to "run the gauntlet" where Snowden Lane narrows between steep ditches from Overbrook out to Van Dyke. 

But town engineers claim the bridge is now owned by the neighbor. Curious that a private homeowner would be responsible for a bridge whose collapse would block a New Jersey waterway.

The collateral discovery was that we noticed a number of dead fish in the stream. I put one next to a walnut for scale, and sent the photo to a young naturalist named Felix who is learning about fish in the local streams. He told me it's a creek chub.

Hard to say what's going on. Fish kills can be caused by bacterial outbreaks, or low oxygen when the water gets too warm. Maybe the misuse or overuse of pesticides played a role.

What IS known, however, is that this lovely old, carefully crafted bridge is not going to mend itself. Galdino pointed out that the stone arch work is not just on the facade but extends the full width of the bridge. Proposed development upstream could increase the runoff headed towards this fine piece of history that speaks to a time when Snowden Lane was considered a country road.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

A Beautiful Release Dove Lingers on Franklin Avenue

It's gone now, but for ten days, a beautiful white dove lingered at the street edge in front of a recently vacated house on Franklin Avenue in Princeton. 

The first time I saw it, I thought it strange, but kept driving. The next day, it was there again, and I stopped.

The fact is, I don't remember ever seeing a bird quite like this. It wasn't a rock dove, or a mourning dove, or a seagull. It looked like a displaced pet, yet when I approached, it suddenly flew up like a bolt of lightening, and made a breathtaking arc far above. It began to circle back, saw I was still there, then headed north beyond the trees. I had never seen such a fabulous flight. The next day, it was there again. The neighbors who told me the dove had been there a week and a half said it "looked like it was waiting for an Uber."

Might it have been a pet of the people who had just moved out? Maybe its homing instincts are such that it escaped during their move and returned to what it considered home. But neighbors didn't think the previous residents had had a pet bird. The dove walked about on the pavement, pausing to peck at the ground. 


After several days of seeing it there, and asking neighbors, none of whom knew where it had come from, I finally got serious about wondering what this bird was. Some internet research yielded two names for the bird: "release dove" and "java dove". Apparently they sometimes get included in wedding ceremonies, the idea being that the dove or doves will be released at a celebratory moment and fly up in the same breathtaking manner I witnessed, symbolizing the hoped for trajectory of the marriage, then dutifully fly up to 600 miles back to their owners until the next wedding gig comes along. They can also make symbolic appearances at funerals and public ceremonies. 

The wikipedia page reflects disagreement about the tradition of release, with concerns raised about the fate of the birds following the release--the logic being that the birds are white and therefore particularly vulnerable to attack by hawks and other predators. Breeding for the pure white feathers may cause attrition of their homing instinct, making them more likely to get lost rather than return to their homes. It's conceivable that's what happened in this case, though the bird looked very sure it was in the right place.

There's even apparent disagreement about the latin name for the bird, with one sentence calling it a domestic rock dove (Columba livia domestica) and another calling it a barbary dove, (Streptopelia risoria). 

Photos from 1950 show a dovecote near the Veblen House in Herrontown Woods--the metal structure on the right that looks like a rocket. Most likely dating back to the 1930s when the Whiton-Stuarts owned the property, the dovecote could have housed doves for eating, carrier pigeons for messaging, or pigeons that were bred for display. 

The dovecote is long gone from the Veblen House grounds, and the fate of the release dove on Franklin Avenue is a mystery. It may have flown off in search of food, been found by its owners, or been caught by a predator. But one thing now is deeply known and felt, and that is how astounding a dove's flight can be. 

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Phyllis Marchand and the Benefits of Deer Culling

This past Sunday, Oct. 17, my Sustainable Jazz duo performed at a tribute to Phyllis Marchand at the DR Greenway's Johnson Education Center. 

Phyllis was mayor of Princeton Township for 14 years. For those accustomed to Princeton having an all-Democrat town council, it's astonishing to read that when Ms. Marchand was first elected in 1986, she joined a township committee that had been all-Republican.  Her long tenure preceded the merging of township and borough. Since I lived in the borough, she was not really my mayor, but her environmentalism has had a lasting impact on the natural areas I've helped to manage over the years. 

Among her many achievements, her courage in starting a deer culling program 21 years ago had all kinds of longterm benefits--dramatically fewer car accidents, recovery of native plant species, improved wildlife habitat, and a healthier deer herd. The culling program was very controversial at the time, with Mayor Marchand and other supporters having to endure heated criticism and personal attacks. 

The data are very strong on the benefits of annual culling by professional hunters. Here is some data collected for a post about deer hunting in 2013. Deer killed in roadway collisions dropped from the high of 342 in 2000 down to 68 in 2010. In 2019, 555 deer were killed in the township by vehicles and amateur hunters. In 2010, after ten years of professional deer management, the total number killed by vehicles, hunters and professionals had dropped to 286. Thus, one can say that investing in professional deer management actually has served to reduce the total number of deer killed each year. 

The township tried to save money by cancelling the deer culling in 2014, but deer numbers rapidly increased and the annual contract with professional hunters was quickly reinstated.

Given all of Phyllis Marchand's contributions to society through her long life, I had assumed that the deer culling issue was larger for me given my primary interest in nature. But the NY Times began its lengthy obituary with a detailed account of the controversy surrounding deer culling, including one sentence that is demonstrably false:

In the end, town officials declared the program a success because it had reduced collisions between deer and vehicles by 40 percent. But it didn’t solve the problem. The deer remain abundant, and while Ms. Marchand had contracted with White Buffalo for only five years, the town is still using its services.

The contract has been in place every year since 2000 except for one, and the deer herd is now small enough that many native plant populations have been able to recover. The obit doesn't mention the ecological benefits, but the article it links to does. Spicebush--a native shrub that is particularly important for bird habitat--is a dramatic example of recovery, once liberated from intense deer browsing. And the reduced browsing pressure has allowed many native wildflowers to bloom and provide nectar and pollen for insects. Having banished wolves and other predators of deer from the landscape, we then bear the responsibility to keep deer numbers in some semblance of ecological balance. Hunting is a way of stepping in to fill the void in natural predators. Mayor Marchand understood this twenty years ago, and weathered the storm to institute a policy that has proven its worth.

Phyllis Marchand, I've learned through her family, was a great fan of music sung by Nat King Cole and others. Sustainable Jazz usually plays all-original jazz and latin, but we added some of Phyllis' favorites from the American song book, including High Hopes, first sung by Frank Sinatra--a song whose lyrics can grow on you if you happen to have a dream. It's interesting to read in wikipedia that John F. Kennedy used a version of High Hopes as a theme song in his presidential campaign in 1960. 

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

What to Think of Black Vultures?

The other day, I was thinking about how much I love chipmunks, and how much my sister hates them. How do we reach opposite opinions about the same animal? Are the chipmunks that now run amok in her vegetable garden the same chipmunks I fondly remember from childhood, scampering over rocks, their cheeks puffed out with their latest gleaning of nuts? 

Vultures also tend to get mixed reviews. Some find them creepy; others laud their soaring skills and their ecological role of cleanup crew. There are two types in Princeton--the common turkey vultures and the less common black vultures that have been expanding their range to the north over time. Many people look up, see a bird soaring, and think it must be a hawk. More often it's a vulture, usually a turkey vulture, which is black with a feint streak of silver along the back of the underside of its wing. Black vultures' wings from below appear to be tipped with silver.

For years, black vultures have perched on the chimneys of the Veblen Cottage at Herrontown Woods. At first we considered them a bad omen, but then as we learned more about them we gained respect and began to appreciate their presence. The photo is by Julie Tennant, a neighbor to the preserve who has taken an interest in the birds. The vulture still has a ring of fluffy immature feathers around its neck.

Each spring a pair of black vultures raises its young in the corncrib next to the cottage. People of course want to take a peek inside to see the chicks, but we worry that loose dogs and too many visitors could ultimately scare the vultures away.
It looked like that had come to pass this summer when the vultures disappeared for awhile, but then we saw a chick out for a walk on the cottage grounds, its plumage very much in transition.
Four years ago, one of the two chicks was slow to mature, causing the family to linger far longer than usual, often perching on the chimneys of the Veblen Cottage. We were won over by the patience the parents showed as they waited for the second chick to mature.
It was odd, then, having learned to care about the vulture family, to encounter an article in the NY Times entitled 
"Black Vulture Attacks on Animals May Be Increasing." Ranchers out in the midwest are claiming they are losing newborn livestock to black vultures that have been moving north into new territory. 

It's not clear from the article whether the ranchers are losing healthy livestock, or if the vultures are moving in on calves that were stillborn or dying. 

We're used to thinking of animals as occupying distinct categories. Predators kill, scavengers do not. But it would be interesting to explore how much overlap there is between the two roles. I've been struck by how black vultures's bodies look more raptor-like than the bodies of turkey vultures. And there's a bird we'd see along roadsides in Patagonia called the Chimango caracara. By its appearance it looks like a hawk, and yet it more often plays the role of a scavenger.

American black vultures are also expanding their range in Patagonia, potentially competing with Andean condors for food. Articles like these could work against the trend of our feelings about black vultures, which in Herrontown Woods have evolved towards affection. For us, they are fascinating birds, wild and yet drawn to live on the edge of our world, raising their young, and perching on the roof of nearby All Saints Church. (photo by Peter Thompson)

Monday, October 04, 2021

Help Your Local Trail Crew -- Sew a Rock Net

Here's an indoor way to help out the volunteers who take care of nature trails in your local nature preserve. Sew a "rock net" for carrying the big stepping stones that help hikers get across streams and through muddy patches. I was corresponding with Alan Hershey of DR Greenway to update trail info for Herrontown Woods on, and somehow the conversation turned to rocks--big rocks, the kind that work really well for trails--and how to get them to places too rugged for a hand truck. He recommended a rock net--a kind of cargo net developed by Deb Brockway, who has made several and steadily improved the design.

Below are instructions for anyone who has a knack for sewing and is looking for a good project. I know we could use one of these at Herrontown Woods, and other organizations could benefit as well. Thanks to Deb and Alan for this information.

The rock net, sometimes called a cargo net, looks like this:

Here are instructions from Deb:

Below are some helpful ideas from Deb on where to find materials:

"It is possible to buy a custom-made cargo net but they are relatively expensive, which is why I decided to make them. I have used 2-inch width recovery tow straps. The first straps I used I bought at Home Depot, which allowed me to feel the weight and clearly see the weave of the webbing. Those straps were no longer available from Home Depot, so I bought the next ones from Amazon and was not as pleased with the quality of the webbing (though there are lots of options, so I’m sure there are some with a tight weave). Next time around I will go to one of the online webbing sites to purchase it. That is a less expensive option and some of those outlets will cut all the pieces to requested lengths for no additional charge as compared to cutting a single entire length. The added benefit is that all of the ends would be (or should be) heat sealed when they arrive. If you cut the webbing you will need to melt all the cut ends to prevent fraying.

The attached document has additional information and sketches for cutting, assembling, and sewing a net like the orange one in the photo.

FYI… another option is to tie a net using thick rope. A trail crew I have worked with created such a net fashioned after a fishing net. It had a diamond net design, with knots tied at the junctures and some sort of gummy substance covering the knots."