Monday, September 29, 2014

Pretty Perfect Weekend Field Trip

I'm teaching ecological restoration at the University of Pennsylvania this term as an Adjunct Professor.  It's a class for graduate students, and I have taught it every other fall term since 1992 - that's 22 years now, about as long as some of my youngest students have been alive.

I'd like to take the students on a lot of field trips.  The more that they can get out in the field to see actual restoration work, the better.  But UPenn is very near the heart of Philadelphia and it's hard to get to a site, take a tour, and get back to campus in the allotted 3-hour class period.  So, I always offer a weekend field trip to my preserve.  We did the trip this last weekend.
Many of the students are foreign nationals, and most don't own cars, so they use the regional rail network to get near my preserve, and then Kali and I pick them up at the train station.  Yesterday's trip started off badly - a 60-year-old man walking on the railroad tracks was struck and killed by a train (it happens more often than you might imagine; most victims are suicides), which delayed the start of the trip by one hour.  But the students all finally arrived and we enjoyed two hours of nearly perfect early autumn weather.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Sora Out of Water

Sora (Porzana carolina) [Image from an Internet source]
This morning, two of my preserve's best birders and nature photographers stopped in the office after a morning photo shoot to report that they had found and rescued a Sora (Porzana carolina) on a trail through our tall native grasslands.  The Sora was alive (though clearly injured or sick); the birders planned to take it to a wildlife rehabilitation facility to see if it could be saved.

Two years ago, a birder found a Sora on another of our grassland trails, but that bird was dead. 

I have no idea why a fairly uncommon bird almost always associated with marshes would be found high and dry in the prairie-like grasslands we have established on parts of our preserve.  Nor do I have any idea why these birds are in bad shape.  It's great that they're here, but not if our preserve is acting as a "sink" in which the birds fall victim to predators or disease. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Late Summer on the Trail

Japanese angelica-tree (Aralia elata) seeds
It's been a while since I've posted (mostly because Kali's broken foot kept me from getting out much during her four-week convalescence), but her cast came off last Tuesday, the crutches are stored in the attic, and Kali is, once again, driving herself to and from work.  On Saturday afternoon, we took advantage of her new-found freedom and nice weather to walk on the level, even-surfaced rail-to-trail pathway in the county park downstream of my preserve.  It was the longest walk Kali had taken in five weeks, so we started out slowly; she was only able to walk a mile before her foot began to hurt and we turned around, but in that distance I got some late summer images.
Kali on the trail
One long section of the trail is bordered by dense growth of non-native, invasive Japanese angelica-tree (Aralia elata).  This plant is closely related to native Aralia spinosa, which is also known commonly as Hercules'-club or devil's walking stick. 

Aralia alongside the trail
Aralia branch and flower/seed stalk from below
Angelica-tree and Hercules'-club have the largest leaves of any plant in the mid-Atlantic.  Each leaf is pinnately compound, with a dozen or so leaflets strung along a central rachis.  The tree produces tiny white flowers on feathery pink flower stalks, giving the plant an interesting and unmistakable appearance.
Aralia leaves and flower stalks from above
Aralia gets its common name of devil's walking stick because the stem and even the leaves are liberally  festooned with defensive thorns.
Aralia stem
There were lots of weedy late-summer native plants producing seeds and fruits along the route...
False climbing buckwheat (Polygonum scandens)

Bur-cucumber (Sicyos angulatus)
The trail heading north along the west bank of the creek flowing about 20 feet below.
The creek photographed downstream
...and there was no shortage of non-native invasive plants, too, in addition to the Aralia.
Mile-a-minute weed (Polygonum perfoliatum) with blue seeds favored (and spread) by birds
Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica)
Porcelain-berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) - the bane of my professional existence
Autumn was just beginning to make its advent apparent in the trailside foliage.
Flowering dogwood leaves (Cornus florida) on the woodland edge are turning maroon
Great Blue Heron fishing the creek's shallows
Several groups of skittish Wood Ducks in autumn eclipse plumage were cruising the creek.  I captured the image below with my telephoto lens extended to its maximum, and then I further enlarged and sharpened the image digitally, so the quality is not great, but it was the best I could get.  When enlarged, I think the image looks a little Impressionistic as a result of my manipulations.  Wishful thinking...?  What do you think?
Wood Ducks on the creek
The creek at the north end of our walk

Saturday, September 6, 2014

An Emptyness in the House

The Gimp Twins, Kali (left) and Doppler.  Doppler's left forepaw is bandaged.
A more personal post than usual; please excuse me, readers, who come to It Just Comes Naturally for news about the natural world in my part of the northern Piedmont.

On Thursday, we had to euthanize our 17(?)-year-old cat, Doppler.  I added the (?) because we don't know exactly how old she was because we brought her indoors 17 years ago; she may have been older.  Doppler got her name because she looked exactly like her mother (or her sibling?) - another stray cat that used to hang around outside the house with Doppler but who disappeared one day;  Doppler stuck around, and "Doppelganger" got shortened to Doppler.

Doppler entered our lives with a bandaged leg, and she exited the same way.  We originally had to bring her indoors because she'd gotten into a fight with an animal outside, which left her with a badly injured leg.  Because the animal with which Doppler had had a tussle could have been rabid, our vet gave us two choices: (1) euthanize the cat or (2) bring her inside and isolate her for four months to make sure she wasn't rabid.  Obviously, we chose the second option, so the vet bandaged Doppler's leg and we took her home.  She lived in the basement for those four months; it must have felt like a prison to a cat that had been used to living outdoors.  We gradually became acquainted and she was fully domesticated at the end of her confinement.

Doppler generally was a good cat, but she definitely was "queen" of the household.  We've had two other cats during the time Doppler lived with us, and she just barely tolerated them.  The other cats quickly learned their places in the pecking order.

Doppler loved Kali more than she did me, even though I fed her, cleaned her litter box, and groomed her.  She looked forward to "lap time" with Kali every evening, and she let us know if we were late going into the living room to watch television for an hour before bed.

Doppler began to decline about two years ago.  She developed thyroid problems and had to be medicated twice a day.  She also developed gingivitis and some tooth loss, but she was getting too old to sedate for a tooth cleaning.  Then, three weeks ago, she started hobbling around the house, clearly in pain if she put her left forepaw on the floor.  One of the vets in the practice we patronize couldn't definitively diagnose the problem and gave Doppler pain medication, but the problem worsened.  A second vet diagnosed the problem as either a tumor or an infection in a toe.  He bandaged the leg because her foot was bleeding profusely and put her on a course of antibiotics.  After a week, it was clear that the antibiotics didn't help, so the vet recommended amputating the toe; he said there were really no other options.  So, we scheduled the (risky) surgery for Thursday morning.  However, when I went to get Doppler to take her for the operation, I found her crying pitifully, back legs splayed out and useless.  When I tried to move her, she cried out in anguish.

I called the veterinary practice, cancelled the surgery, and begged for an immediate appointment.  They saw us an hour later and said that most likely a blood clot had lodged in the arteries serving Doppler's hind legs.  There was nothing they could do for her, and we decided to euthanize her.  I'll admit I blubbered uncontrollably.  I buried her that evening alongside the other cats with whom we've had the privilege of sharing our lives. 

Oh...about the image of the Gimp Twins.  Three weeks ago, Kali slipped and fell down three steps.  She twisted her ankle and broke a bone in her right foot.  She's been in a "boot" and on crutches ever since, and has limited mobility.  She goes back to the doctor on September 16 - not a day too soon for either of us!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Deadly Embrace

On Saturday morning, I went outside my back door and nearly walked face-first into a caterpillar that had spun a silken thread to descend from the canopy of the huge sycamore tree that grows behind the house.  I was in and our of the house several times over the course of a half hour, and the caterpillar was there each time I went in and out.

Then, I saw that a wasp had discovered the caterpillar and was taking advantage of this juicy morsel that was as large as the wasp.  For several minutes, the wasp clung to the caterpillar.  In the image, it looks as if the wasp may have its mandibles around the caterpillar's neck, but I couldn't get a close look because the caterpillar was swaying in the breeze.

Finally, as I watched, the wasp tried to fly away with its prey, but the silken thread held and the duo just swung back and forth in huge arcs, powered by the wasp's wings.  Finally, the wasp gave up and flew away.  The caterpillar was dead, bent in half.  It had disappeared the next time I went outside, perhaps discovered by a more powerful wasp or a bird.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Rail to Trail Reconnoiter

Traversing a trestle spanning my creek at the southern end of my preserve
A suspended railroad right-of-way bisects my preserve, roughly paralleling the creek that also bisects my preserve.  The rail line was built in 1876 with the intention of linking Philadelphia to New York City.  But a second rail line, built two years earlier in 1874, also with the intention of linking Philadelphia to New York City, had the advantage of traversing flatter terrain and allowing for greater speeds.  As a result, the 1874 line (built by the Pennsylvania Railroad) quickly won out, and the line through my preserve (built by the Reading Railroad) was extended northward from Philadelphia only about 30 miles and served local commuters.

The line was carrying passengers until 1984, when the local regional rail authority suspended service because of low ridership.  When service stopped, the rail authority abandoned the right-of-way, which mostly became overgrown with vegetation.  Walkers kept a casual trail open along the right-of-way by wearing a path, but the edges of the rail line became a jungle - which was fine with me.

Then, our county decided that it was going to turn the right-of-way into a trail.  They began by removing the rails and ties along a 2-mile section of the right-of-way that ran through a county park downstream of my preserve.  Now, the county is extending the trail northward through my preserve.  This extension has caused a great deal of consternation among my board members, but the county is moving ahead non-stop, and the trail, whether we like it or not, will be complete by next summer (2015).  We're concerned that mountain bicyclists and dog walkers will ignore the trail use limitations in our preserve and will require considerable patrolling.  On the other hand, the secluded rail corridor had been a site for vandalism, drinking and drug use, so the trial could have some positive impacts, too.

On Wednesday morning, August 27, a group of people from the county, two local municipalities, and our organization walked the length of the new trail route to point out areas where we anticipate there could be problems so that the county could plan accordingly.  I present some images from our walk.
The trail route through the southern end of my preserve
Estimating the width of the final trail
Purple loosestrife (Lythrum slicaria) and rose-mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) along the trail
Approaching the post office/train station in the historic district at the edge of my preserve
My creek just upstream from the post office
Crossing another trestle over my creek (there are three trestles in my preserve).  House on the right is private.
My creek viewed upstream from the trestle, above
A green tunnel
An historic stone-arch road bridge over my creek, now part of our trail system and off limits to traffic.  This is the second-oldest bridge in our county (1840).

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Invasives Dystopia

I've been asked to give the keynote address to a regional gathering of Garden Club of America clubs in October.  The theme that the organizers chose for the gathering is "invasive plants," which gives me a lot of leeway for my talk.  I'm going to focus on introduced ornamentals that have escaped and become invasive pests.

One of the organizers wants to create a poster board of "bad actors," and she wants to include Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) among the plants.  I needed to find images of knotweed for her, and on the way back from the grocery store yesterday I saw a perfect patch just begging for a photograph.  So, I parked and walked over to get some shots.

The area is on the floodplain of a small tributary to my creek just upstream of my preserve.  It is - to put it bluntly - an invasives hell.  An ecological nightmare.  A complete write-off.

The floodplain is an impenetrable thicket of Japanese knotweed.  It's 10-feet tall - the tallest knotweed I've ever seen.  But wait, there's more!  The knotweed is being over-topped by porcelain-berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata).  And, just outside the area where the knotweed is so thick, there's a thriving stand of purple loosestrife (Lythra salicaria).  About the only plant I didn't notice was mile-a-minute weed (Persicaria perfoliata), but it certainly could have been there amid the green chaos.

I will admit that bees were enjoying the scene - and not just non-native honeybees, but native bumblebees, too, so I guess the site is not a complete write-off.
Invasive Gulch
Knotweed in flower
Porecelain-berry is rapidly engulfing the trees in the background
The land is owned and managed by the municipal wastewater authority.  Although the site is at the intersection of two fairly significant roads, the wastewater authority doesn't do much to maintain the property.  They probably don't know what to do (repeated herbicide applications would be appropriate), but they do try to mow it down occasionally.  I've tried to talk to them about management, but they're in the wastewater treatment business, not invasive plant control, and I've gotten nowhere with them.
Knotweed (background) and purple loosestrife
Purple loosestrife (mostly) with a little porcelain-berry in the foreground
Of course, since the stream is a tributary to my creek and is upstream of my preserve, all of the propagules produced by these noxious weeds flow downstream and end up you-know-where.
The knotweed in the foreground is being over-topped by porcelain-berry