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 (, 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...

Friday, July 10, 2015

Foray to Frazier's Bog

Morton Arboretum's Joe Rothleutner's preparing an herbarium specimen
On Wednesday, July 8, I had the good fortune to escort two horticultural professionals to an amazing wetland located 0.3-mile from my office--a forested swamp known as Frazier's Bog.

The swamp is not, in fact, a bog.  Bogs are characterized by standing water which is often stained tea-brown by tannins leached from decomposing organic matter.  In addition, bog water is acidic.  Frazier's Bog is actually a fen, which has running (albeit slowly running), clear water that tends to be neutral or slightly basic.  The water at Frazier's Bog seeps out of a porous quartizite bedrock ridge immediately to the north, and the shallow rills, runnels, and rivulets that thread through the wetland flow over sandy beds.

The swamp is also amazing because it's a Coastal Plain outlier.  My preserve and environs are on the solid, metamorphic rocky Piedmont; the edge of the sandy Coastal Plain lies about 10 miles to the south.  Nevertheless, many of the the plants that occur in Frazier's Bog are plants typical of the Coastal Plain in New Jersey, not the Piedmont.  So, Frazier's bog is a rarity--an island of the Coastal Plain 250 feet above sea level in a shallow basin in the Piedmont. 

The bog's unusual nature has been recognized for a century and a half, and over the years countless botanic field trips have tromped through the spongy, saturated site.  Currently, the wetland is located at the edge of the second fairway of a private country club's golf course, but fortunately the country club recognizes the botanic gem and has posted signs to keep golfers out of the swamp (which is a treasure trove of lost golf balls).
Fortunately, the country club recognizes the wetland's value
Frazier's Bog (and and only two other sites in Pennsylvania) support sweetbay magnolia trees (Magnolia virginiana).  The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois and the Chicago Botanic Garden (CBG) have joined forces to create a sweetbay magnolia collection that includes specimens from the full range of the tree - Massachusetts to Cuba.  On Tuesday, Andrew Bunting of CBG and Joe Rothleutner of the Morton Arboretum came to Frazier's Bog to make softwood cuttings from 10 magnolias growing in the swamp.  They will attempt to root the specimens so they can be planted in the botanic gardens, and so that they can be propagated and shared with other gardens.  In addition, they are creating a germplasm "bank" in case the sites where these trees occur naturally are eliminated by hurricanes, tornadoes, fire or development. 
 Chicago Botanic Garden's Andrew Bunting "bagging" his quarry
The swamp floor is carpeted with skunk cabbage and ferns
In addition to taking the softwood cuttings, the pair collected specimens of the leaves and fruit from each of the sampled trees to include in an herbarium collection.
The Dynamic Duo just before leaving the swamp
After we left the swamp, we crossed to the opposite side of the fairway (fore!) to check on another Coastal Plain species, netted chain fern (Woodwardia areolata).
Joe photographing netted chain fern
When the country club resurrected this 9-hole course about 20 years ago (it had been "abandoned" during the Great Depression), they had enclosed the stand of ferns inside orange construction fencing.  The construction fencing is long gone (so as not to offend the sensibilities of the the golfers) and has been replaced with unobtrusive wire mesh fencing (which is collapsed and useless); the ferns, nonetheless, are thriving.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Dog Vomit Slime

Now that I've got your attention...
On the wood-chipped path outside my office
Of late, I'm obsessed with slime mold, and one species in particular: Fuligo septica.  Last year, a neighbor cut down several large tuliptrees that had grown too near his house.  His arborist chipped the wood, and our organization took the wood chips for our trails.  This spring, the wood chipped trail has come alive repeatedly with slime mold aggregations.

At first, this slime mold is a strikingly bright, brilliant yellow.
Image from Wikipedia
Image from Wikipedia
But after a day or so, it turns dun-colored and looks like its common name.

I knew this organism was a slime mold, but I knew very little about it, so I checked out the citation on Wikipedia and found out that Dog Vomit Slime (also known in more genteel circles as Scrambled Egg Slime [still not too appetizing] or Flowers of Tan) is one of the most common and widely distributed of the slime molds.

Slime molds are not molds (i.e., fungus) at all despite their common name. They and the other protists (i.e., single celled organisms) are lumped into their own kingdom equivalent to the animals, plants, and fungi, but the classification is constantly in flux because the relationships among these organisms are so poorly known and understood.

Like many slime molds, the cells of this species typically live independently, then based on some unknown cue, they come together and aggregate to form a plasmodium. Each cell gives up its individual existence and merges its cell body and nucleus into a mass that may move in an amoeba-like fashion in search of nutrients. F. septica's plasmodium may range from white to yellow-gray, and is typically 1-8 inches in diameter and 0.4–1.2 inches thick. The plasmodium eventually transforms into a sponge-like aethalium, analogous to the spore-bearing fruiting body of a mushroom, which then degrades, darkens in color, and releases its dark-colored spores. F. septica produces the largest aethalium of any slime mold.

Close-up image of the aethalium.  Soo cool!
In Estonian mythology, the aethalium was thought to be the leftovers from a kratt, a creature created by farmers out of hay and/or farm implements, given life by the devil after the farmer surrendered three drops of blood, and obligated to do the farmer's bidding. F. septica in Finland was believed to be used by witches to spoil their neighbors' milk. This gives it the name paranvoi, meaning "butter of the familiar spirit." In Flemish, it is known as "heksenboter," which refers to "witch's butter."
What strikes me as most odd is that none of the myriad visitors to my preserve that walk past the slime molds ever come in to inquire about them, especially when they're in their bright yellow stage.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Stream Safari

Stewardship Assistant Kevin with a handful of Asiatic clam shells
Despite the threat of thunderstorms, our annual Stream Safari came off without a hitch.  Our Stewardship Assistant Kevin who just earned his undergraduate degree in education, led about a dozen participants to the creek to comb the streambed cobbles for critters.
What ya' got there?
We billed this year's safari as an event for children more than we have in previous years (when we advertised it as a family activity), and four families with lots of kids came for the event.

Most invertebrates cling to the bottom of rocks
Our creek is "impaired" according to the state's official classification.  How could it not be?  We're in the center of the watershed, and the upper half of the drainage is fully overwhelmed by suburban sprawl.  So, our creek suffers from torrential flooding, sediment deposition, erosion, and nutrient enrichment.  In fact, it's amazing the creek is in as good a condition as it is.
Mom was really getting into the hunt
We found plenty of caddisfly larvae and mayfly nymphs that are tolerant of moderate pollution.  The invertebrates indicative of really high purity streams were, of course, completely absent.
Kevin even set up a field laboratory so that the participants could examine their finds with microscopes.  Everyone seemed to enjoy the cool water on a hot, humid evening as well as the cool animals hidden in the creek's nooks and crannies.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Primordial Landscapes: Iceland Revealed

A Smithsonian staff member in the hall outside Iceland Revealed exhibit
The founder of my organization, Feodor Pitcairn, is a very accomplished nature photographer.  Though he worked in his family's financial business, his true love was photography.  He began his photographic career making stunning, natural-light undersea still images, then graduated to undersea videography.

At 80 years old, he has forsaken diving (too dangerous, he claims; he has related some really "close calls").  Now he photographs terrestrial landscapes with very high-end camera equipment.  He has spent the last several years making expeditions to Iceland, which resulted in an exhibition of his work at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

Mr. Pitcairn collaborated with Icelandic poet Ari Trausti Gu├░mundsson to "reveal a land of fire, ice, hardy life, and natural beauty. Visitors to the exhibit experience the remote beauty of Iceland, a land sculpted by the elements and forged by active geologic activity."
Enjoying the exhibit
Mr. Pitcairn organized a bus tour to Washington for a small group of his friends for the exhibit's opening on June 30, and Kali and I were invited to come along.  It was the culmination of years of work, and he was in "seventh heaven."
A beaming Mr. Pitcairn
A well-known Icelandic folk troupe with the (translated) name "Seasons" happened to be in town on tour and entertained the crowd during the reception.  During the mingling after the formal speechifying, Kali and I had a chance to speak with the Icelandic Ambassador to the United States and former Icelandic Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde.  He gave us his card and invited us to contact him if we wanted some "special considerations" should we choose to visit Iceland.

Though Mr. Pitcairn's images are striking, Kali's not much motivated by stark, sere landscapes.  I doubt we'll take Mr. Haarde up on his offer.