Thursday, October 30, 2014

Regrouping on Meadow-nesting Bird Habitat


Between a pasture and a crop circle
Since 1997, our organization has been working diligently to create habitat for meadow-nesting birds which, as a group, are the most endangered suite of birds on the East Coast because of habitat loss.  Our strategy has been to establish native, warm-season grasses on a 160-acre farm we purchased that year.  Now nearly two decades into the project, we have a fairly respectable stand of native "prairie" grasses cloaking the land.  The grasses are beautiful (especially this time of year), resilient, and very popular with our visitors - but not with the birds we are trying to attract.  Eastern Meadowlarks, Bobolinks, and several species of sparrows stop in the grasslands during migration, but they never stay to breed.  What's wrong?  Didn't we do everything right?

Well, it turns out we didn't do everything right.  Grassland managers all along the East Coast have come to realize that the birds are seeking diversity - diversity in height and diversity in plant composition.  To the birds, our grasslands are too dense, too tall, and too monotonous, and they don't provide food (i.e., insects) in sufficient quantities for nestlings.

So, you might recommend that we diversify the grasslands, and you'd be right.  However, we also have a terrible problem with invasive plants.  The grasses can be treated with special herbicides that kill all invasive plants except the grasses, but there's no such "magic bullet" for diverse combinations of plants.  Once invasive plants colonize a mixed-vegetation meadow, control becomes much more time consuming and costly because the invasive plants have to be removed "surgically" without disturbing the desirable plants.  We've resisted trying to diversify our grasslands for that reason.

But, we've finally come to the realization that (1) we're not going to attract meadow-nesting birds if we don't do something different, and (2) if we can't attract meadow-nesting birds, why have the grasses at all because our landscape really wants to be a forest and we have to fight Mother Nature (i.e., natural succession) to keep it in grassland.

Fortuitously, I invited a respected field ecologist to speak to my restoration ecology class a few weeks ago about native grasslands.  This ecologist and I are good friends, and he has visited my preserve to consult on several occasions.  He also serves on the board of directors of another land trust in the region.  He told me that "his" land trust had had Eastern Meadowlarks nesting in native grasslands this summer, and he suggested that I talk to his land manager for some guidance.  So, I rounded-up my senior stewardship staff for a field trip and we paid a visit to the other land trust on October 30.  
Edge of the "crop circle" (darker foreground), native grassland (tawny center) and pasture (green, far left)
Tom, the preserve's land manager had successfully created native grasslands like we had, but had also failed to attract meadow-nesting birds.  Then, he decided to create "crop circles" - round meadows within the grasslands that he seeded with a mixture of 16 different species of low-growing flowering plants (i.e., wildflowers).  Three years ago, he established about 10 such circles ranging in size from 0.25-acre to over 4 acres.  And, this summer, Eastern Meadowlarks nested in his preserve - not in the crop circles (and not in the native grasses), but in a pasture composed of non-native grasses immediately adjacent to the largest crop circle.  
Diverse crop circle vegetation (foreground)
Tom watched the meadowlarks build nests in the pasture (which is just as monotonous a monoculture as the native grasslands, but lower in height).  Then he watched the adult birds fly into the crop circle to catch insects that were using the wildflowers.  Success!
Crop circle (foreground), native grasslands (mid-ground), and woodland (background)
Tom's crop circles get colonized by the same invasive plant species with which we have to contend, but he told us that he is able to control the invasives before they become problematic with a combination of mowing before the invaders set seed, spot application of herbicide, and the judicious use of a string trimmer.  He's got a smaller land stewardship staff than I do, so my staff should be able to do as well.
Crop circle (right) and native grassland (left)
My staff drew-up plans for our grassland modifications in the car on the way back to my preserve.  Stay tuned; it may be a year or two before we're successful, but at least we now have a plan!
Autumn color in the grasslands

Monday, October 27, 2014

Autumn Doesn't Get Any Better Here

Fox Chase Farm
The last weekend in October, just passed, was quintessential autumn here in the northern Piedmont.  Kali and I had errands to run on Saturday morning, but still managed to get some time to clean up the garden and rake some leaves - anything to be outside to appreciate the perfect temperatures, low humidity and cloudless skies.  Sunday was nearly a carbon copy, except it was a bit cooler and a little breezy - even more perfect,if such is possible.  We decided to take a walk in the afternoon in the county park downstream of my preserve.  The county had just lengthened the existing rail-to-trail route by installing a bridge over a ravine and I wanted to see the project and walk the newest part of the trail.
Looking across the new bridge back to the older part of the trail
The bridge is a handsome addition to the trail.  The CORE-TEN steel has weathered to a color that nicely complements the largely natural surroundings, especially in the autumn.
Across the new bridge toward the newly lengthened trail
The trail now terminates in a municipal park about 500 feet from the far end of the bridge.  Walking across the new span is nice, but the trail extension is so short that it doesn't add much to the walk - either in distance or interesting scenery.

On the return trip, I stopped to photograph Fox Chase Farm (lead image to this post) located adjacent to the county park.  Fox Chase Farm is a joint project of the Philadelphia School District and the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation (P&R).  The land is owned by P&R, but the school district operates the farm, which raises cattle, pigs, and sheep within the city city limits.  Ostensibly, the farm gives students the opportunity to become familiar with farming, but as one of only two farms still operating within the city limits (the other also operated by the school district), I wonder about the value of the investment for such an urbanized population. 
Harper's Run
Kali and I finished our glorious 4-mile walk following the course of Harper's Run within the county park.  Harper's Run is one of the most scenic tributaries to my creek, and a favorite photographic subject of mine.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Modest Guy

 
Over a year ago, representatives of the local garden club asked me if I would speak at the Garden Club of America's regional meeting in October 2014.  I speak to Rotary Clubs and other similar groups fairly frequently so, of course, I agreed to speak.  At first, the garden club wanted me to speak about the conservation work in my preserve.  But mid-year, they changed their minds and asked me to talk about invasive plants, a topic about which I know a great deal.  Since I hadn't prepared my talk yet, the switch was not a problem.

As the date for the talk approached, I gradually got the feeling that this was a "bigger deal" than just throwing together a few images for the Rotary Club.  Perhaps it was because I kept getting phone calls from garden club meeting organizers asking if my preparations were in order, and because several garden club members wanted to come to talk with me to make sure my presentation would be pertinent.

So, about a month before the deadline, I really began to work on the presentation in earnest and I put together a very good PowerPoint about the origin and management of invasive plants, with an emphasis on the showier horticultural thugs.

My presentation last week was very well received.  The audience was fully engaged and asked more questions than I could answer in the allotted time.  These women - and they were all women - were savvy, intelligent, and on the ball.  They came from all over Pennsylvania (i.e., Zone 5 of the Garden Club of America) and from points further afield.  I felt very good about the affair.

During the lead-up to the meeting, the organizers repeatedly mentioned that they wanted me to stay for lunch.  No problem - I'm always willing to enjoy a good meal, and these gardeners were so engaging that I looked forward to the camaraderie.  Following the meal, the group presented six awards.  After the fourth award, the moderator began to document the accomplishments of the fifth awardee.  Instead of using feminine pronouns, though, the moderator began to use male pronouns.  I scanned the crowd of 100 or so meeting participants and did not see another male in the room.  Hmm...

And, quickly enough, it became clear that I was the recipient of the Garden Club of America's Zone Conservation Commendation, presented to "an energetic gentleman of high character, modesty, and integrity who breeds success in environmental restoration and protection utilizing his managerial, teach and writing talents."  Aw, shucks.

Usually, such awards are pro forma (to thank a speaker), but this award was different.  The organizers has solicited letters of recommendation from six individuals who know me well, and the award had to be vetted by the Garden Club of America's national office in New York.  In addition, these women were so astute and interesting that I felt genuinely honored to be recognized by the group.  My head hasn't swelled, but I am proud to have received this award.    

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Moon of Falling Leaves Ramble

All eyes (image from the Internet)
In a comment on one of his posts, I mentioned to my blogging colleague Desert Packrat (desertpackrat.blogspot.com) that I had to lead a full-moon walk last night in my preserve.  Packrat responded to say that he hoped the walk went well. I decided to recount the events of the evening in a reply to Packrat, but my reply grew to "post" length, so I'm pasting it here for everyone.

The sky cooperated beautifully last night, giving us great views of the moon and some interesting checkered patterns created by the subtly illuminated clouds.  Also, while it was a bit breezy, the temperature was perfect for the walk - mid 60s.

As I was leaving the office yesterday afternoon, I lamented to a co-worked that I had to lead the walk last night and that I'd have to make sure that none of the clumsy walkers tripped in a groundhog hole.  Well, none of the walkers fell into a hole, but honest to goodness, I did, and I went down on my back.  Boy, did I feel stupid, but nothing other than my pride was hurt.

In an effort to spot something - anything - during the walk, I shined my strong flashlight into some of the meadows alongside the trail.  No deer, coyotes, or foxes, but the light did reflect off a tiny "something" in the grass.  It was a pinprick of brilliant green light.  I left the trail, keeping the light shining on my "quarry" all the while.  When I got right up to the spot, the reflection disappeared (the angle of the light had shifted so the pinprick was no longer reflecting anything).  I searched and searched, but couldn't see anything until I finally spotted a wolf spider among the grass.  Sure enough, its eye(s) were reflecting green.  Neat!  After I spotted the first spider, we started to see them everywhere, which gave the group something to look for.

Near the end of the walk, I shined my light into an open meadow often favored by deer.  We saw two green eyes burning back at us.  The eyes blinked, and then whatever it was walked away.  The eyes were forward-facing; I suspect they were a fox or coyote rather than a deer.

Everyone seemed satisfied by the walk, but I'm inevitably disappointed when I lead these night walks.  We never see any animals (we're too noisy), we never hear any owls, and the sky is too bright from the reflected lights of the city to see any constellations.  It's hard to think of things to say to the participants, but most of them just seem to enjoy walking outside creating their own moon shadows.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Sunset Medow Ramble

On Tuesday evening, I had a chance to walk the native grasslands in my preserve just as the sun was setting.  The sky was dramatic, and the lighting was interesting, though barely bright enough to show the colors that are developing in the meadows and the woods.

The natural area preserve surrounds me every day, but the only time I get out into "nature" is after work and on weekends.  Otherwise, I'm mostly "chained" to my desk.  One of my board members warned me this would happen when I was promoted from land manager to executive director; he was prescient.

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.