Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Disappointing Friday Field Trip

Male red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) in full mating display
Last Friday (April 11) I escorted my graduate landscape restoration students on a field trip to a site I had previously visited but had never used for a class field trip - and was disappointed.  The site was on the expansive campus of an exclusive and very expensive private school.  The campus straddles a large, flood-prone creek.  Years ago, probably before the creek's upper watershed became so heavily suburbanized and covered with impermeable surfaces, the school had built its athletic fields on the creek's flat floodplain. 

But, as the creek began to flood with increasingly frequency, the fields could be used less and less often.  The school finally decided to undertake major capital improvements.  It moved the fields out of the floodplain and replaced the fields with a series of interconnected basins that gather stormwater and hold it until the creek's level falls low enough to accommodate the runoff.  In addition, the basins were naturalized with native plants to create wildlife habitat. 

The school spared no expense in this project (both to build its new first-class athletic fields and to restore the floodplain), so I guess that's why the results were all the more disappointing.    
Parking lot "rain gardens"
Our tour began at the athletic fields parking lot, where runoff from the paved surfaces is channeled to rain gardens where it filters into the soil or, if the soil's infiltration capacity is overwhelmed, is shunted to a detention basin.  Unfortunately, the "rain gardens" consist of thick layers of mulch and a very few forlorn shrubs. 
Up against the wall, rain garden
Next we visited a rain garden adjacent to a retaining wall holding up the football playing field.  Our guide (a faculty member among whose other responsibilities at the school is to manage the new restoration area) explained that the construction activity had left the area completely barren and full of clayey, compacted soil.  So, to create the rain garden, the contractor had excavated five feet of poor soil and replaced it with layers of stone, gravel, and sandy loam to improve infiltration.  Then, the contractor planted shrubs and trees.  Unfortunately, it appeared to my students and me that the rain garden, which should have looked like a shallow depression, was actually slightly mounded above the rest of the landscape.  So much for collecting much runoff.
Overlooking the basins on the floodplain
We finally got to the floodplain, where the athletic fields had been replaced by the interconnected wetland basins.  Our host explained that cattails (Typha spp.), a native but aggressive species, quickly colonized the basins after construction and had completely taken over the shallow wetlands, providing a bit of wetland habitat, but not diverse, high quality habitat.  Our host explained how the students' parents did not want the school to use herbicides to control the cattails, and that she had instead organized volunteer work parties to uproot the cattails.  For a few years, the work parties could keep ahead of the advancing plants, but then the novelty of the project wore off and the volunteers disappeared, hence the rank growth.  In addition, the dreaded and highly invasive Phragmites australis reed had begun to appear in the ponds, too.
Re-excavated wetland basin
Our last stop was a wetland basin that the school uses as for water quality studies.  This basin, like the others, had become overwhelmed by cattails, but the school needed to maintain open water so that the students could conduct water quality monitoring.  Over the winter, the school hired a contractor to excavate the basin and remove the accumulated organic matter and the cattails and reeds.  How long until the cattails reappear (and the contractor returns)?

Because we had a little time before the class was over, we walked up a small drainage to a spring seep on a hillside.  Here, in the wet area below the spring, skunk cabbage had begun to emerge from its winter dormancy.
Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) in a spring seep
Eastern garter snake (Thamnopnis sirtalis sirtalis) on the floodplain among the invasive non-native lesser celandine (Ranunculus divaricata)
I have to ask the students this Friday if they felt that the field trip was worthwhile.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Wounded Weekend Warrior

Sunday, April 13, was a beautiful day here in the northern Piedmont - sunny, a nice breeze, and temperatures in the upper 70s - too nice to stay inside.  So Kali and decided to take our first bike ride of the year on the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park towpath trail that parallels the Delaware Rive in New Jersey north of Trenton.

The day was perfect and the ride was great until just before the end.  This winter's ice storms had brought down a lot of woody debris alongside the path that the state park folks had not yet had a chance to clear.

Because the day was so nice, there were a lot of riders.  I was following closely behind Kali, who moved toward the verge of the path to give oncoming riders room to pass.  Kali's bike caught the end of a branch alongside the trail, but didn't interfere with her ride.  However, the branch snapped back and became entangled in my front wheel's spokes.

The bike (and I) went down unceremoniously and I slid, mostly face-first, toward the Delaware River over a steep embankment with a thick growth of multiflora roses.  Fortunately, I was wearing my helmet (as I always do) and only got scratches and scrapes.  Oh, and I jarred my neck a bit, too, which is still stiff today.  But, all in all, it could have been worse.
Kali took these pictures after we got back home.  I look more and more like my father (now deceased) every day.
Looks worse than it is

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Return to High School Park

High School Park Stewardship Manager Kevin preparing a dogwood live stake
A year ago, I brought my undergraduate Landscape Restoration students to High School Park, a 10-acre municipal park in a Philadelphia suburb that a non-profit "friends" organization adopted in order to re-establish native ecosystems on the site of the community's old high school.  At the end of our field trip in 2013, as I was preparing to leave, a young man came by walking his dog and we struck up a conversation.  It turned out that this fellow, Kevin, was enrolled in the graduate landscape architecture program at the university where I serve as an adjunct instructor, and that he had just applied for the part-time Stewardship Manager position at High School Park.

I needed some part-time help in my preserve, so I asked Kevin to call me if he found that he had some time.  Kevin got the job at High School Park, and he did some restoration work for me, too, all while trying to finish his Master's degree (which he will do next month).  So, when it came time for a field trip this year, I asked Kevin to escort my students - graduate students this year - around the park, which we did on a drizzly, cold April 3 morning.
An introduction to the restoration work
We spent a lot of time in the floodplain of Tookany Creek, which forms the northern border of the park.  Like all the streams in the Philadelphia suburbs, Tookany is a "flashy" stream that roars after rains and then dries up to nearly a trickle between storms.  Water quality is "impaired," a polite term for terrible.  The streambanks are constantly eroding, and much of the work in the park is dedicated to trying to stabilize them as best as possible. 
Considering options for streambank restoration in an urban watershed
The municipality has spent a lot of money installing "cribs," telephone poles anchored into the streambank and filled with soil, then planted with trees and shrubs.  The cribs hold for a while, but inevitably the stream begins to erode behind the structures, which usually results in a catastrophic failure during a major flood.  In the lower right of the image below, the upstream end of one of the cribs is visible.  If it doesn't receive some attention soon, that crib is doomed.
Downstream view of Tookany Creek with crib 
Though spring is finally getting underway here in the northern Piedmont, only a few flowers have dared to blossom yet.  One that is not so shy is lesser celandine, an invasive buttercup that carpets our urban and suburban floodplains excluding native spring ephemerals.  Though the plant flowers profusely, ecologists believe that tiny bulbettes attached to the tops of the roots are actually more responsible for its spread than are its seeds.  Because he plant favor floodplains, the bulbettes detach from the mother plant and wash downstream during floods, establishing new colonies.  
Lesser celandine (Ranunculus divaricata)
The site of the demolished high school on a plateau above the creek has been converted to a meadow.  Though the "friends" have tried twice to create a meadow dominated by native species, the meadow consists mostly of non-native, invasive weeds.  The repeated failure can be attributed to the fact that the building was bulldozed into its basement, leaving a calcium-rich, high pH substrate for plants that prefer low pH soils.  In addition, the layer of topsoil spread over the site was far too shallow to support most native species.  Scheduling difficulties with the planting contributed to the failure.  And, finally, becaue the park is public property, the private "friends" group cannot apply herbicides that might help keep the weeds in check.   
At the edge of the "native" meadow
Kevin also has to beg for help from the municipality's parks department, which has mowing equipment that the "friends" group cannot afford.  While the park employees try to be helpful, sometimes they act more like "cowboys" more adept at mowing large expanses of turf.  Two weeks ago, the park guys mowed down shrubs planted at the edge of the meadow - another setback.
Colorful stakes failed to prevent the parks "cowboys" from mowing shrubs
At the end of our tour, Kevin showed the group some "planting logs" he invented to try to speed-up the development of a riparian shrub layer.  Kevin creates a "burrito" of mulch and soil wrapped up tightly in burlap, and then he inserts dogwood cuttings into the logs.  He keeps the burritos moist, which encourages the dogwood cuttings to develop roots.  Then, he takes the rooted logs down to the streambank and secures them with more dogwood cuttings in an effort to jumpstart a stabilizing shrub cover.
A burlap planting log
How Kevin will secure the rooted logs onto the streambank

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Haddington Woods

Colleagues at the edge of the old growth
The Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation (P&R) has invited me to participate in its Urban Forest Working Group, a rather august group of professionals from southeastern Pennsylvania, all of whose members are involved in some aspect of forest restoration.  Philadelphia P&R has mobilized the group to solicit feedback and guidance on forest restoration projects in the city's parks.  I missed group's first meeting (on February 5) because that was the day our infamous regional ice storm shut down most of the area (some participants, somehow, managed to get to the meeting).  Because I missed the first meeting, I was anxious to attend the second, scheduled yesterday (April 2).  In addition, this second meeting included a field trip to an ancient forest - Haddington Woods - probably the finest old growth forest in the city.
Schist boulders weathered out of the hillside; some bear graffiti - hey, it's the city
Not all of Haddington Woods is high quality old growth; in fact, only 5 acres of the 27 acre forest are ancient woods.  Other parts of the site are very badly degraded by invasive vines, which blanket the trees with their weighty green shrouds.  Though we enjoyed visiting the old forest, we spent most of our time in the field surveying the areas of the park most in need of restoration.
Weighing options for restoration
Haddington Woods is a small part of the city's 851-acre Cobb's Creek Park located on the extreme western edge of Philadelphia.  In fact, Cobb's Creek traces the city's western boundary.  The very densely populated neighborhoods bordering the park are not among the city's most prosperous enclaves, and group participants were told that many local residents feared going into the park.  Perhaps that's why the forest is not especially vandalized or trashed.
The Big Tree
Near the end of our tour, we stopped to see the "Big Tree," the largest and oldest denizen of the forest.  It is a northern red oak (Quercus rubra), and the city's foresters have estimated that the tree is at least 250 years old.  The trunk has a diameter of 60 inches.
Bocce 1; each tree is protected from deer with a mesh sleeve
At the very end of the walk, as we headed back to our cars, we stopped to see a forest restoration project completed last year in conjunction with a ravine stabilization project.  The parks folks named this Bocce 1 because it is located adjacent to a bocce ball court situated in the park.

Despite a little bit of drizzle, it was good to get away from my desk for a few hours, walk in the woods and confab with some of my professional colleagues and friends.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Field Trip

Demonstrating the white-tailed deer trap
Members of the Society for Ecological Restoration's Mid-Atlantic Chapter visited "my" preserve on Saturday afternoon, March 22, to review forest restoration and white-tailed deer research projects underway here.  This field trip was one of three trips scheduled to coincide with the Chapter's annual conference that took place the day before at Temple University.
Deer researcher explaining how he remotely springs the deer trap from his laptop
A research and teaching colleague from a local college began by reviewing the white-tailed  deer movement research he has been conducting since 2006 using collared deer and digital telemetry. 
A chapter member from New York City Parks pointing out chestnut blight canker
The group then took a walking tour of an old-growth woods recently cleared of invasive plants, several reforestation projects (including one project that incorporated American chestnut trees, now exhibiting signs of chestnut blight disease), riparian reforestation projects, and the preserve's 160-acre native grasslands.  We also took advantage of the fact that one of the tour participants was a former University of Pennsylvania researcher who had established a forest succession research project in the preserve in 1990 - a project he had not been back to review in over two decades.

Former University of Pennsylvania researcher explaining a research project in the background

Fortunately, the day was partly sunny and warm - the warmest day so far this year, with temperatures in the mid-60s.  I had expected the preserve's trails to be muddy after the endless winter snows, but they were pleasantly firm and dry.  Participants seemed to have enjoyed themselves - even if it was just to have a chance to be outside on a nice spring day.  We even heard spring peepers trilling in one of the wetlands!

Timing for the tour was fortuitous - there's more snow forecast for tomorrow!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Spring in Winter

We're now at Friday at the end of Kali's spring break week.  (For that matter, it's my spring break week, too, because I'm adjunct faculty at one of the universities in Philadelphia.)  In prior years, Kali and I often traveled during this week, but this year we decided to stay in town because the weather has been so bad and unpredictable that we didn't want to risk losing power (and heat), only to return home to find burst pipes (a very distinct possibility this year).  And, we didn't look forward to flight interruptions because of inclement weather.

Because we stayed in town, we decided to spend Wednesday afternoon and evening at the Philadelphia Flower Show, the largest and oldest flower show in North America.  While we had pretty much made up our minds last weekend to attend the show, the show organizers on Monday made the unprecedented decision to offer a significant reduction in the entrance fee because meteorologists had forecast the worst snowstorm of the season for Sunday night into Monday, a storm which - fortunately - veered to our south and only brought us 1-1/2 inches of snow instead of the forecast 12 inches.  The discount offer, which was good for any day of the show but had to be purchased on Monday, clinched our decision.

The theme of this year's show was ARTiculture (art + horticulture).  Most years, the displays seem to have only the most tenuous connection to the theme, but this year the designers really took it to heart.  My favorite display is depicted in the image at the top of the post - a backyard garden incorporating sculpture and plant material.  The design is bold and has clean, distinct, uncluttered lines.  Exactly to my taste.

Another of my favorites was a joint effort between the Brandywine Conservancy, a regional land trust, and a garden designer.  The Brandywine valley, located 20 miles west of Philadelphia, was the home of the Wyeth family, including such well-known artists as Andrew Wyeth and Jamie Wyeth.  The conservancy's exhibit incorporated a facsimile of a portion of Andrew Wyeth's painting studio into native woodlands.  The design also included the most natural-looking artificial stream I have ever seen in my life.  Another impressive achievement.       
Andrew Wyeth's studio in the woods
Native woodland garden outside Wyeth's studio
Much less ambitious but equally delightful was a small display created by the Hudson Valley Seed Library.  This non-profit organization is dedicated to saving, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds.  In addition - and this is the good part - they sponsor a contest for artists to create paintings based on the heirloom flowers and fruits, and then the Seed Library incorporates the winning artwork into the seed packets they offer for sale.  The Library's display included both the winning artwork and the seed packets that resulted from that artwork.  What a great idea!  The Library had also set-up a booth in the vendors' area where they were selling the seeds.  I bought some basil, chard, and Tiny Tim Tomato seeds. 
Hudson Valley Seed Library's art-inspired seed packs

Monday, February 24, 2014

Winter Urban Hike

Although the weekend was very pleasant (clear, blue skies with temperatures in the mid-50s), the accumulated snow has by no means disappeared.  There's still a foot or more covering most unpaved, uncleared surfaces, and walking is extraordinarily difficult.  On Saturday, Kali and I walked at a state park with paved bicycle trails that had been plowed and were clear and dry, but unpaved, untreated trails were still snow-covered and icy.  So, we thought about other options for a long walk on Sunday and decided to tackle an 8-mile loop in Philadelphia.

The Schuylkill River (a bit of a redundancy, since the Dutch word Schuylkill means "hidden river," a name stemming from the fact the mouth of the river at the receiving stream [i.e., the Delaware River] was obscured by dense reed beds) forms the western edge of central Philadelphia.  The river flows within a large urban park created in the 19th century to protect water quality in a river that served as the source of the city's drinking water.  Today, roads parallel the river along both sides, but between the roads and the river runs a paved recreational trail that is very popular with walkers, runners, skaters, and bicyclists.  Because it was paved and had been plowed, the trail was clear and mostly dry, so Kali and I decided to walk from the north end on the western bank toward central Philadelphia, cross the river, walk back along eastern bank, and then cross the river again to our car - a total distance of 8 miles.

The image at the head of the post shows our approach to the southern end of the walk, nearing central Philadelphia.  The skyscrapers of Center City are at the right.  The large neo-Classical building on the left is the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  In the left foreground, along the river, are the clubhouses of the rowing clubs that use this stretch of the river for competitive training; this cluster of eccentric buildings is known as "Boathouse Row."  One of the clubs' teams is on the river in the right of the image.
Kali along the Schuylkill River esplanade
In the image above, Kali is standing at the rail above the Fairmount Dam, constructed to back up the river so that water could be withdrawn as a source of drinking water.  Behind Kali on the opposite bank of the river sits the Fairmount Water Works, completed in 1812.  The Water Works withdrew water from the river and pumped it to a reservoir on the hill above (Fair Mount), from which it was distributed throughout the city by gravity flow.  The Philadelphia Museum of Art now occupies the location of the reservoir.  The Water Works buildings have been rehabilitated and serve as an interpretive center for the city's water department.   

Fairmount Water Works and the Museum of Art
The Fairmount Dam also marks the head of tide in the Schuylkill River.  Downstream of this point, the Delaware River (and its tributary, the Schuylkill River) are tidal.  The image above was made at low tide, so some of the metamorphic rocks of the Piedmont are visible in the riverbed.  A very short distance downstream, the river crosses over onto the sandy Coastal Plain.
View northward across the top of the Water Works to Boathouse Row
The large house on the hill on the upper right of the image above is called Lemon Hill Mansion.  The area that is now parkland surrounding the river was once the private estates of wealthy Philadelphians who could afford to escape to their "country homes" instead of suffering through summer in the city.  All of the remaining mansions are now city-owned and are open to the public during the holidays when they are decorated for Christmas.
The recreation path in front of Boathouse Row
Looking Westward
This statue has always intrigued me.  Usually, I see it when I'm zipping past at 35 miles per hour on the road along the east bank of the river, but on Sunday Kali and I had a chance to look at it closely.  It was completed in 1966 by a Lithuanian sculptor and depicts an American pioneer carrying a caduceus gazing westward across an eagle's back.  It's dramatic and interesting, but so abstract it's hard to puzzle out.  My image isn't the best, but it's hard to interpret even when you're standing next to it.
Promontory Rock rock
At one point, the recreational trail enters a short tunnel bored through Promontory Rock formed from the hard metamorphic schist bedrock along the river.  My final image, above, shows the rock in detail - tortured, folded, melted and reformed during the collision of North America and Africa 200 million years ago.

Our 8-mile hike took us 2 hours and 23 minutes, including stops for images.  We ate lunch as we walked.