Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Late Summer Dusk

At dusk every evening in late summer, hundreds - maybe thousands - of American Robins fly over the fields of my preserve.  Almost all are flying from north to south, though I don't think they are migrating.  I believe they are headed to a communal roost somewhere beyond the horizon.  This astonishing passage can continue for half an hour, with birds materializing out of thin air in the north and then fading into the ether to the south.

Sometimes the birds are clumped together.  Sometimes, they are flying solo.  Usually, though, they are flying in small groups.  All pass silently overhead, earnest to get to their destination before nightfall.  I can watch, mesmerized, for the entire spectacle.  Poor Kali, whose eyesight is nowhere as good as mine and who has lots of "floaters," only sees the occasional bird and doesn't understand my open-mouthed astonishment.  
Curiosity overpowering the instinct to flee
Last evening, I went out to see if any Common Nighthawks were migrating over my preserve.  Kali and I watched nine of them wheeling over the meadows on Sunday evening, August 23, but I haven't seen any since.  Because their migration is a harbinger of autumn, and nighthawks are fascinating birds in their own right, I'm always excited to see them, but was only fortunate once this summer.  Instead, last night I was treated to several does and their fawns browsing in the meadows and...
Heading back to the evening roost
...a small flock of tom turkeys sauntering through the grasses, reluctant to end their day.
This spring, our native grasslands were infested with Canada thistle, a Pennsylvania noxious weed that we are obligated by law to control (and which we want to manage in order to minimize competition with native grasses and desirable forbs).  We hired an herbicide professional to treat our fields, and his chemical magic did the trick - we had no thistle problem this year.  Instead, the fields are now a sea of non-native foxtail (Setaria spp.), an annual grass that is common in disturbed areas.  Once the native grasses regain the upper hand, foxtail will gradually disappear.
Foxtail seedhead
Dusk landscape with fields, forest, and distant towers
I won't miss the passing of summer, but it does have its moments.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Seemingly Endless Supply of Broken Glass

Meadow trail with rising gibbous moon
I haven't posted in a while, so I just thought I'd let my followers know that I'm still around.

I really don't enjoy going outside when it's hot and humid, and it's been that way here for the last few weeks.  So, after working in my air conditioned office, I go home after work to my house (where I generally don't have to use the air conditioner because the thick stone walls keep the house tolerable), cook, eat and clean up after dinner, and then watch some television before Kali and I head to bed.  Pretty boring, huh?

However, last Sunday afternoon, Kali and I tackled a job she loves to do: pick up broken glass on a trail in my preserve.  This glass is not from malicious youths who bust beer bottles.  This glass is from the 1920s or earlier.  At that time, my preserve was farmed, and one of the farmers used a ravine as a garbage dump.  Now, the ravine is eroding deeper and deeper, and the broken glass is washing out of the soil onto one of our trails.  The glass drives Kali mad when she sees it.  So, we've been making periodic forays to the ravine and trail to collect the shards.  There are some really big pieces of glass, and most seem to have been parts of milk bottles.  Occasionally, we find pieces of what I describe as blue Delft-ware, but the fragments are always small.  Kali likes to go into the ravine and onto the trail after a rain because the water exposes debris after each storm.

On the way back home after our glass collecting expedition, we were crossing one of the large open meadows on my preserve and the sky was bristling with Common Nighthawks catching insects on the wing.  I love nighthawks, but only get to see them a few days a year during their fall migration.  So, last night after dinner I cajoled Kali to take a walk to see if the nighthawks were there.  They weren't, but the evening was really pleasant with relatively cool temperatures, low humidity, and clear blue skies, so we had a nice long walk. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

Suburban Stormwater Tour: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Los Angeles River East
My organization is partnered with four other watershed organizations in the Philadelphia suburbs in a consortium that is working to improve water quality and reduce stormwater quantity in the Delaware River.  Our consortium works in the Philadelphia suburbs, but the philanthropic foundation that spearheaded this work is funding seven similar consortia throughout the huge watershed.  Our consortium is tasked specifically with reducing stormwater, while the consortia working in less-developed parts of the basin are working to reduce agricultural impacts and to preserve open space. 

Our work has been going on for 1-1/2 years now, and the staff of the foundation requested a tour of sites where the foundation's support has been used to implement stormwater management projects in the field.  On Thursday, August 6, the watershed organizations' and foundation's staff members gathered for a day-long bus tour of four sites scattered throughout the Philadelphia suburbs.    

First stop was at a private residence where a rain garden had been installed.  This rain garden was one of about 20 rain gardens that are being installed in prominent locations where neighbors and passers-by can become familiar with using a rain gardens to capture and infiltrate stormwater running off impervious surfaces instead of allowing it to pour directly into storm drains.
Publicity in the front yard
The rain garden, planted in May
Homeowner (blue shorts) and project consultants (right)
Second stop was a detention basin created to manage the stormwater for a 40-unit McMansion subdivision in a wealthy neighborhood.  While the basin was larger than needed to manage the stormwater generated by the subdivision, the basin was poorly designed and actually did almost nothing to detain stormwater.  The municipality has committed to modifying the basin by reducing the diameter of the discharge pipe (thus trapping and holding the stormwater for longer periods of time), creating islands, peninsulas, and pools within the basin to create habitat, and planting native vegetation throughout.
On the berm above the basin (about 10 feet deep)
Temple University hydrologist explaining testing equipment to monitor project effectiveness
After lunch, we toured a municipal sports complex where stormwater sheets off playing fields and discharges directly to a small stream.  (Turf sheds water almost as effectively as asphalt.)  At this location, the municipality intends to create deep, rock-filled swales that will allow rainwater running off the fields an opportunity to soak into the ground rather than run off directly to the adjacent creek.
Water from the playing fields (right) and parking lot pours into this swale, then directly into a creek
Grass swale will be replaced with a rock-filled infiltration trench
Later in the afternoon, we stopped at one of the most challenging and intractable sites imaginable; we wanted to show the foundation staff members just what our organizations have to deal with in the developed suburbs.  Here, a small headwaters stream drains a fully-developed residential and retail neighborhood.  Because the watershed has so much impervious surface (e.g., driveways, rooftops, lawns, and roads), very little rain water soaks into the ground, so the stream has almost no baseflow during dry periods.  However, when it rains, the stream turns into a raging torrent because all of the imperious surfaces shed water directly to the creek.  Unfortunately, this neighborhood is densely developed, so the stream channel is located in residents' backyards and there's nothing that can be done to widen the channel or create stormwater detention.  Instead, the municipality confined the creek to a concrete channel reminiscent of the infamous Los Angeles River to sluice the water downstream as quickly and "safely" as possible. 
Concrete confines
During our last hurricane, two people living downstream of this channel drowned in their basement when the water rose up in a flash and flooded the house.  So much for safety.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Nature Deficit Disorder: A Classic

I thought my readers, especially in the West, might get a kick out of reading this short article.  It appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Tuesday, July 28, 2015.

The treed hiker was from exurban Philadelphia, and she was hiking in the Pinelands National Preserve in east-central New Jersey.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Standard Issue Male

A fire ant simultaneously biting and stinging (Internet image)
In a comment to my blogging colleague Packrat on his blog Desert Packrat (desertpackrat.blogspot.com), I mentioned that I had once had a horrific encounter with fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) that could have threatened my life and about which I never (at the time) told my wife Kali.  I figured that I had related this story in a previous blog post, but Packrat told me he didn't recall the story.  So, here goes...

When I lived in Florida (1981-1988), I worked for a state agency that sponsored and conducted research on phosphate ore surface mines.  My responsibilities were related to reclamation following mining.  Very early in my career, I was working with an ornithologist who was investigating the value of flooded phosphate mine pits for wading bird habitat.  I agreed to help this investigator perform some field sampling, which involved screaming across the surface of the mine pit lakes in an airboat at night.

As dawn approached after our nighttime foray, we brought the boat into the landing.  It was still too dark to see much, but I soon realized I was standing in a fire ant mound because the ants were crawling up my leg and stinging me.  The stings were uncomfortable but not as painful as a wasp or bee sting, so I took off my pants and brushed away the myriad insects.  We finished packing up, and then I got in my car and began to drive home with the intent of cleaning up and catching a few winks before I went into work later that day.

As I was driving home, I started to feel dizzy but, heck, I had just been up all night, so I didn't give it much thought.  When I got home, I stripped off my clothes, took a shower, and realized I was feeling really dizzy and nauseated.  I laid down on the cold bathroom tiles wondering if I was going to pass out.  Kali asked me what was wrong, and (like a typical [stupid] "tough guy" male) I replied, "Nothing.  Just let me lay here for a few minutes."  Actually, I was in pretty bad shape, but I still rejected Kali's requests to help.
This is how my legs looked (Internet image)
I never did pass out, but I was pretty miserable.  In short, I probably was going into anaphalactic shock, and poor Kali would not have known what the heck was happening.  

Why do guys behave this way?   

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Headwaters Protection

Playground to be replaced with a rain garden
My organization is one of 80 watershed-protection organizations in the Delaware River basin that are participating in an ambitious collaborative effort funded by a major Philadelphia-area philanthropic foundation to preserve and restore water quality in the Delaware River.

While my organization has not yet undertaken any projects in my watershed, one of my sister organizations is going gangbusters on a small, heavily urbanized stream located just over the divide from my watershed.

The stream rises in a play area on the grounds of a private school.  The school is very interested in improving water quality in this small headwaters stream - both to be a good citizen, and also to use the restoration work as an educational resource for its students. On July 23, several of the local watershed organizations partnering in this collaborative effort took a tour of the work that has been completed on the school's property.

In the image at the beginning of this post, my friend and colleague Julie, director of the sister watershed organization, explained that the school is going to replace the existing grassy playground - the very beginning of the stream - with a rain garden that will capture runoff and allow it to percolate into the soil.
Newly planted riparian buffer.  The stream is flowing down the center between deer exclosures.
Just below the existing playground, the school has created 50-foot-wide riparian buffer plantings to shade and filter the nascent stream.
De-vine buffer
A bit downstream of the newly planted riparian buffer, the stream flows through existing streamside woodlands.  However, like all woodlands in the urbanized northern Piedmont, these trees were cloaked with invasive non-native vines.  The school's contractor removed the vines and planted individual trees in the areas freed of invasives.
Existing riparian buffer cleared of vines and expanded with new plantings
At the edge of playing fields
The soccer fields to the right of the image above shed precipitation almost as effectively as asphalt.  The school plans to create an infiltration trench at the base of the hill where the visitors are standing to capture the water coming off the fields and allow it to percolate into the ground rather than run directly into the stream to the left.
Parking lot runoff
The last stormwater management structure at the school will be a rain garden built at the end of the parking lot shown in the image above.  Now, when it rains, all of the water from the parking lot pours into the stream through the rocky gully visible in the image.  The school plans to capture the water in another rain garden and allow it to filter into the soil slowly.

Obviously, to make a difference in the overall Delaware River watershed, these types of projects will have to be repeated thousands of times over on countless small tributary streams.  But this is a great first step, and it serves as a model for others to emulate. 

Friday, July 24, 2015

Insects and Stick-tights

Stick insect
I have to admit I've become a "wuss" in my old age (63).  My vegetable garden is an unsightly sea of weeds encroaching on six sad tomato plants, all corralled behind a deer- and groundhog-proof fence.  It looks like a green cage in a botanic zoo adjacent to my front lawn.

The foundation plantings around the house are all overrun with weeds and vines, and the gutters are sprouting miniature aerial gardens.

When summer comes, I no longer have any motivation to go outside in the heat and humidity to beat back the green hordes.  I didn't used to be this way; I don't know what happened to me.

Anyway, last evening, Kali had to work late.  She didn't know when she would be able to leave work, so I didn't want to go off on a walk or a bike ride, only to have her call me 10 minutes after I departed to tell me she'd be home in a half-hour.  So, instead, I decided to tackle the very modest green spot immediately outside our back door which has been invaded by a plant that generates stick-tight burs.  Last year, I cleared out this mess, but I waited too long so the stick-tights were ripe and they clung to everything, as they are wont (and "designed") to do.  This, year, I decided to make a preemptive strike, and the still-green burs only got a few holds on my arm hairs.  By the way, I don't know the identity of the plant I was clearing out.  Because the plant is no longer flowering and has nondescript leaves, it's almost impossible to identify.
Ripening stick-tight burs
[Update:  Since I published this post a few hours ago, I went back to the weed patch and found some of the plants still had a few flowers on them.  With the help of my wildflower book, I've identified the plant as a woodland native with a great name, Enchanter's-nightshade (Circaea lutetiana candadensis) - a common and completely unassuming denizen of the forest during its growing (i.e., pre-bur-producing) stage.  I also learned that the species is rhizomatous and perennial, which means that it'll grow back next year from the pieces of root I leave in the soil when I pull-up the above ground parts.  I can't wait...] 

In the course of clearing out the weeds, I exposed a stick insect (image above).  These insects are not common in the northern Piedmont, so it was a treat to see one skulking in the vegetation.  Stick insects are herbivores, so this one wasn't stalking prey despite its similarity to the carnivorous mantids.
Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillar
I also uncovered the caterpillar of an Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenus) clinging tightly to a plant that I was not removing from the garden.  It never moved and was fairly small.  It may have been ready to pupate, but I'm not sure.  One Internet reference said that the last instars of this caterpillar have no dorsal spines, but this one did sport a few black spines.

I did manage to clean out all the stick-tight plants in the area I targeted, then noticed that an adjacent bed had even more than the area I had just cleared.  I guess I know what I'll be doing at least part of this weekend...