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

Thursday, August 14, 2014


The creek in the county park downstream of my preserve
Our land trust is partnering with the watershed association that champions the environmental quality of the stream that drains the land to our southwest.  Last evening, our two organizations convened a joint training session for prospective stream monitoring volunteers at the county park downstream of my preserve.
Classroom training
About 20 people showed up for the training, which began with a PowerPoint introduction to the monitoring protocol.
Choosing a monitoring site
Then the volunteers split up between the two watersheds to choose their monitoring sites.
Creekside fieldwork.  The prominent outcrop in the background is called Council Rock.
Finally, we moved to the bank of the creek to apply the concepts introduced in the PowerPoint presentation to the "real world."  By then, the sun had started to set.

The volunteers were asked to pledge to monitor their section of the creek once a month - a two-hour commitment.  Everyone who attended was enthusiastic and seemed willing to commit more than two hours each month.
A riffle at sunset

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Light in the Woods

I came across this image while I was perusing a Tumblr site and it brought back a vivid memory from four decades ago that I thought I'd share.

When I was a sophomore at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, I lived in the Honors College dormitory.  This dorm (along with nine other newly constructed dormitories) had been completed just one year earlier, so they were highly prized places to live on campus.  Instead of sharing a room with a roommate in an old, brick dorm, the Honors College dorm rooms were singles arranged in modules, with six private rooms opening onto a central common living/socializing space with a shared bathroom.

Though the dorm's amenities were new and posh, the real draw for me was that the dormitories had been built on (what was then) the edge of campus.  Furthermore, they were located on the floodplain of the Hocking River, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had recently diverted into a deep, new rip-rapped channel designed to move floodwaters away from Athens as quickly as possible.  Nevertheless, the dorm builders recognized that the river inevitably would flood, so all of the dorms were on stilts, and were connected to one another by walkways raised 20 feet off the ground.
The new Hocking River channel
My dorm room faced the river channel and the dark, forested hills on the opposite bank.  Getting over to those hills to explore required either (1) driving a car (which I didn't have at the time) or my bike about two miles upstream, crossing a bridge, and then driving down the road at the base of the hills on the opposite side of the river, or (2) fording the newly completed river channel, which most of the time was shallow enough to wade, though the bottom was sucking mud - really great fun, actually!  I used to love to go exploring the woods on the opposite side of the river.

One night, I was in my dorm room looking out the window and thought I noticed a small, dim light in the woods across the river.  The light disappeared, then reappeared.  This sequence occurred several times. I was entranced and decided to investigate.  I couldn't wade the river in the dark (even I'm not that stupid), so I made the long trek across the bridge to the other side of the river, keeping my eye on the dim light all the while.  I finally got to a point where I could leave the road and head into the woods.

There, in a small clearing, was a scruffy young man with a ratty backpack huddled over a tiny fire.  He probably wasn't much younger than I (who was 20 years old at the time).   I'm certain that I must have surprised and startled him as I appeared out of the gloom.  To this day, I don't recall anything about this young man, though I'm sure he was either hitchhiking or homeless. In any case, I invited this kid to come back to my dorm room with me and to sleep on my floor for the night, and he assented.  When I woke up in the morning, he was gone - and he didn't take a single thing from my room.

Nowadays, I wouldn't even consider doing such a thing - and I probably shouldn't have back then, either.  At the very least, he could have robbed me (but how much money could a lower-middle-class student have to steal?) and or/beaten me up.  Foolish, naive, innocent youth.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Misty's Incomprehensibly Stupid Owner

Striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis)
Perhaps this story properly begins last Saturday (July 26).  That morning, I walked up to fill the bird feeders and noticed a very wobbly skunk along the path.  Though it appeared to "rally" while I watched, the animal soon toppled over on its side and lay still, bedeviled by flies and wasps.  Within an hour it was stiff, and I moved the carcass to the compost pile so that visitors wouldn't encounter a dead animal.  (Incidentally, on Sunday morning, the carcass had disappeared from the compost pile, but that's not important for this story.)
Groundhog or Woodchuck (Marmota monax)
Last evening (July 29), our organization hosted a perennially popular beekeeping program.  We expected about 40 participants to arrive around 6:30.  As I was bustling about in preparation for the program, a walker told me that there was a yearling groundhog in our parking lot behaving very strangely, and that some program participants were afraid to get out of their cars.  Sure enough, the groundhog clearly was seriously ill.  It would walk ten or fifteen steps, and then it would topple over as if it had lost control of its legs.  Then it would get up and repeat the behavior over and over.  In addition, instead of running away from people, it ran toward people - sometimes surprising rapidly.  With the large group expected I had to do something, so I called the police and asked them to put the animal down.

While I was waiting for the police to arrive, a visitor drove into the parking lot with his passenger side window open.  His Australian shepherd's head stuck out of the window.  The driver slowed  when he saw the groundhog and he closed the passenger side window.  The driver and I spoke briefly about the sick groundhog, and I mentioned that the police were en route to euthanize the animal.  The visitor and his dog drove out of the parking lot and left the preserve.

The police took a long time to arrive.  I know that a sick groundhog is not on par with a bank robbery, but our preserve is located less than 10 minutes from the police station, so I expected the officer's arrival at any minute.  Meanwhile, I followed the groundhog so that (1) I would know where it was when the officer arrived and (2) I could warn people to steer clear of the animal.  All the while, mosquitoes feasted on my bare legs.

About 30 minutes after I called the police, the driver with the dog drove back into the parking lot.  I reiterated to the driver that the police were on their way and that I expected them very shortly.  The driver then parked his car.

I should mention that, although we don't allow dogs in most parts of our preserve, there are places where dogs on leashes are permitted and it is possible to walk from our parking lot on lightly-traveled public roads to get to the portion of the preserve where dog walking is permissible.  Furthermore, there is a 30-acre open field across the street from our headquarters where people routinely walk and train their dogs, and dog owners often park in our lot and walk over to this field.

So, when the driver with the dog parked his car and opened the door to allow his dog out, I wasn't surprised.  However, instead of walking toward the parking lot exit or toward the open field across the street, the driver and his dog (which was not leashed) began walking toward me and the groundhog.  At first, I couldn't figure out what the guy was doing, then I was momentarily stunned as he and his dog continued to approach me.  After a few seconds, I said to him, "You know, sir, dogs are not allowed on this property, and dogs must be leashed when you walk where dogs are allowed."  He replied, "Oh, okay," as he continued to walk toward me.  Just at that moment, the dog spotted the groundhog and tore off, hell bent for leather.  Also at that very moment, the police arrived in the driveway.

As you might imagine, pandemonium ensued.  The hapless and utterly disoriented groundhog attempted to escape by running under a car, pursued by the dog.  The dog owner kept screaming, "Misty! Get away from there! Get away from there!" all to no avail whatsoever.  This dog had its quarry and it was not going to give it up.  Eventually, Misty grabbed the groundhog and shook it, but didn't kill it.  The owner finally got physical control over Misty, loaded her in the car and sped out of the parking lot.  The police officer, incredulous after watching the whole scene, shot the groundhog with his pistol.

As I expected (and hoped), the officer told me that he would have to take the groundhog in for testing to determine if it was rabid.  I asked the officer to let me know if the test came back positive.  (There was a confirmed rabid bat in our neighborhood two weeks ago.)

For Misty's sake, I certainly hope that she had been vaccinated for rabies.  If not, and if the groundhog was rabid, she almost certainly will contract the disease.  I had never seen this irresponsible dog owner before - he wasn't one of our "regulars" - so I can't contact him if the groundhog tests positive.  A thoroughly upsetting and all around unpleasant experience.