Archive for category Conservation Corner

Leave the Magic Where It Belongs

Southern Red Oak (Quercus falcata) beginning its autumn transition

If you haven’t read Douglas Tallamy’s book, The Nature of Oaks, I highly recommend that you put it on your to-read list. This book is shorter than his others, because he focuses on one tree species – oaks – instead of entire forest and field ecosystems. By so doing, he is more successful at vividly painting a picture of the complex web of life supported by these long-lived forest giants.

A White Oak’s Tale

To tell the story of oaks, Tallamy centers his tale around one oak tree, likely planted by a blue jay as an acorn several decades earlier. Every chapter chronicles one month in the life of the tree. The entire book is worth reading, but with autumn’s recent arrival, I want to focus today on leaves – the ones discarded by deciduous trees about this time every year, including most oak species. When left alone as Nature designed them to be, these fallen leaves form what Tallamy rightly describes as “priceless litter.”

Magic Beneath the Trees

March is the chapter in which Tallamy tells readers about the magic of fallen oak leaves (He spent his October and November chapters on acorns). As an entomologist, Tallamy is better acquainted than most with the millions of insects and other creatures – most quite tiny – that spend their lives in leaf litter. Soil ecologists call these creatures detritivores. They consume dead plant parts or the bacteria and fungi that help break down plant cellulose in fallen leaves. Dozens of species of moth caterpillars are part of this mix; they eat dead leaves instead of green ones. Of course, these creatures are also eaten by detritivore predators, which number in the hundreds of species. These leaf-litter dwellers provide a critical function by recycling nutrients in dead leaves back into forms plants can absorb via their roots.

All fallen leaves contribute to this mostly unseen web of decomposers critical to nutrient recycling that fuels all life. But oaks, Tallamy tells us, create leaf litter that sustains decomposer populations better than all other tree species. The 700,000 leaves that fall from a mature oak tree decay more slowly than those of most other species, providing ideal litter for up to three years. Decomposers need consistent conditions to survive. Bare soil cannot sustain them; it lacks the nutrients and even moisture levels they need. Slowly decaying oak leaves piled beneath their mother trees provide ideal conditions for the occupants of this intricate food web to perform their magic.

Water for Tomorrow

Tallamy notes that a thick carpet of leaf litter also acts like a sponge during rains. Instead of running off bare ground into storm drains, raindrops soak into leaf litter, which is especially beneficial during heavy rains. Tallamy notes that almost all of a 2-inch downpour – more than 54,000 gallons/acre – is absorbed by leaf litter in an oak forest. Slowly, that water seeps down into the water table, where we and the plants can use it in the future.

While that captured downpour is seeping through the litter, it is purified. Excessive nutrients (for example, runoff from overfertilized lawns) and pollutants are captured by the litter, allowing clean water to filter down to the water table. Instead of flooded streams full of pollutants and eroded soil, clean water slowly seeps downward, replenishing streams downhill gradually, ensuring that flora and fauna relying on those aquatic environments are not disrupted.

More Oaks for More Magic

Tallamy’s message in this book is straightforward. He asks that we all plant oaks appropriate to our region now. It is true that oaks planted now will not mature in our lifetimes, but that is not a reason not to plant them. Gardeners know. We plant for our grandchildren. We plant to enrich habitats for native wildlife. We plant to heal our deeply wounded planet. We plant for the magic created by our vision and effort – not just oaks, of course, but yes, definitely oaks too.

Northern Red Oak Acorns

This fall – the ideal season for planting trees and shrubs in the Southeastern Piedmont – please do plant some oaks and other native trees and shrubs. But there is something else you can do that will help. Stop destroying the leaves your plants return to Mother Earth this season. Leave those leaves in place wherever possible. If you must move them, move them gently, to minimize damage to the tiny creatures using those leaves.

Leave Your Leaves

In my yard, wherever practical, I simply rake fallen leaves around their donor trees. In the few areas where I’m still maintaining a “lawn,” I gently rake the leaves around nearby trees. I’ve created a wonderful, increasingly spongy leaf litter bed in my front yard over the last two years by raking about half of the fallen leaves from a massive southern red oak around two ornamental trees. Their leaves also contribute to the litter, but it is definitely those slowly decomposing oak leaves that have created a magically moist, fertile bed into which I’m now adding native ferns and spring ephemeral wildflowers.

Store-bought mulches cannot substitute for leaf litter mulch. They don’t contain the nutrients the millions of detritivores need to survive. It is past time for us to discard old landscaping practices that promote military neatness. Leaves are not the enemy. They are our salvation.

My local Audubon chapter (New Hope Audubon) is currently conducting a wonderful program in collaboration with Triangle Community Foundation and Keep Durham Beautiful, Inc. to promote preserving our leaf litter in place. It’s called Leave Your Leaves. The campaign provides brochures, posters, and yard signs promoting this program. You can read all about it here.

Even if your aren’t a Durham, NC resident, please consider visiting the Pledge To Leave Your Leaves link and signing the pledge. The grant that provided funding for this effort is tracking the number of folks who sign the pledge as a measure of the campaign’s success. If this campaign is successful, it will be easier to win future grants for additional environmental education programs.

 

Learn More About Healthy Yard Alternatives

Next Thursday, October 21, one of my area’s local conservation organizations (Chatham Conservation Partnership) is holding its quarterly meeting. It will feature several speakers presenting information on healthy yard alternatives. The good news for all my readers is that this meeting will be virtual. If you have the time and a decent internet connection, you are welcome to register and attend the meeting at no cost to you. For details on the meeting and how to register, go here.

A big step toward bringing the magic of a healthy ecosystem to your landscape is leaving fallen leaves in place to shelter the millions of tiny creatures who need them. They, in turn, feed plants with the nutrients they recycle. And the plants feed us all.

Bring back the magic. Leave your leaves.

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Metamorphosis

“Caterpillars are really just walking leaves, for that is all they eat.”

–Douglas W. Tallamy, The Nature of Oaks

I am reminded of this sentence in Tallamy’s latest book every time I encounter a caterpillar in my yard. It feels to me to be a deep and important truth, one that is easily overlooked by many, I fear.

He notes in another paragraph that he wants people to stop thinking of caterpillars and other insects as bugs. Instead, he asks us to remember that every stink bug, caterpillar, wasp, and ant is potential food for an animal, perhaps another insect or spider, perhaps a bird, perhaps a mammal. Wildlife needs those bugs to keep the cycle of life operational.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails enjoy many native and non-native flowers, but their caterpillars eat leaves of a number of our native canopy trees, especially Tulip Poplar and Black Cherry.

Now, instead of caterpillars, I see leaves with legs. And although, Tallamy didn’t write it, I now see the butterflies and moths that these caterpillars become as leaves that fly — farther than an autumnal tumble from branch to earth on a chilly north wind. Flying lepidopterans allow leaves, albeit transformed ones, to travel much farther. I am hoping that some of the transformed leaves of swamp milkweed in my garden make it all the way to Central America in the form of a Monarch butterfly migrational journey.

It has been a tough year for the leaves-with-legs in my yard. Predatory wasps and birds got most of the early rounds of Monarch butterfly caterpillars that appeared on my common and swamp milkweeds. One moment, the tiny hatchlings would be happily chomping away. The next — nothing, save a few bits of frass (caterpillar poop) adorning leaves below those on which they were feeding.

Monarch caterpillars on Sept. 20.

Two weeks ago, I was elated when I spotted eleven small Monarch caterpillars dining on swamp milkweed near my front water feature. Wasps were no longer patrolling the plants, their life cycles completed for the season. I thought these leggy leaves had a real chance to make it to their next transformation. For nine days, they grew fatter. I felt certain they were close to their time to become bejeweled emerald chrysalises.

One by one, they began to vanish. Caterpillars wander when they are preparing to pupate. They deliberately leave their food plants and search for another place to build their magic metamorphic enclosures. I searched carefully all around for signs, seeking walking leaves dangling from stems of other nearby plants in the classic J position they assume before they melt into the gilded jewel boxes from which they emerge as winged leaves ready to fly south.

Finally one afternoon, I spotted a fat caterpillar walking on the ground around the water feature. I feel certain it was seeking a plant upon which it would metamorphose. Just as I excitedly pointed out this caterpillar on its transformational journey to Wonder Spouse, one of the Green Frogs spending the summer in our water feature jumped down from the rim of the pool, and before we could blink, we watched the amphibian grab the caterpillar, swallowing it in two big gulps. We were stunned. And horrified.

Green Frog sunning on rim of water feature

Of course, I know that frogs eat insects, but it never occurred to me that they would eat caterpillars as they descended the milkweeds to metamorphose. Later that day, I spotted perhaps the same frog staked out beneath a milkweed that still had two caterpillars dining on it. It was very clearly waiting for them to descend and become its next meal. I confess, I chased the frog back into the water feature, scolding it.

After scouring the area for signs of transforming Monarch caterpillars, I found only one dangling from a spent scape of a daylily. It was in the J position that afternoon, safely beyond the reach of greedy frogs. By the next morning, the leaf with legs had become a jade green chrysalis. I have moved it to what I hope is the safety of my greenhouse before predicted rains could potentially enhance opportunities for fungal contamination or predatory wasps/flies could harm it.

I visit it several times a day to encourage it on its metamorphic journey. October seems to be planning to stay warmer than “normal,” but one never knows when a cold front might blow in with the first frost. It’s not unusual for Monarchs to migrate in late October, so there’s every reason to hope for a positive outcome for this little emerald jewel box.

Still, my heart will lighten when metamorphic magic transforms the chrysalis into a leaf with wings that will carry it safely to warmer winter climes.

Safe travels, flying leaves…

 

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A Week Along the Creek

Critters along the creek were busy this past week, likely due to a combination of a full moon and — finally! — some much-needed significant rainfall. Most of these photos are pulled from video captures off our wildlife cameras, so my apologies in advance for their quality. I’ve left the temperature/date/time data visible, so that you can get a better sense of who was where when. Above is a male turkey out for an afternoon stroll on September 19 during the last of the heat wave and before the rains fell. The turkey hen and a growing chick were also out and about that day.

Here’s the hen by herself:

During the wee hours of the morning on the 19th, two other species were out and about. An opossum passed through several times, inspecting the ground closely for tasty morsels. A trio of does that are almost always together were also scrounging around during the warm night before rains broke the drought.

Our deaf cat, Rose, was out in her catio often during last week’s full moon nights. We know, because we can hear her bouncing around from level to level. We’ve always assumed she was excited by nocturnal movements of wildlife. We were right. Here’s Rose in a typical position at the end of her catio, watching for visitors.

The next night, Rose had several visitors. Left to right, there’s a doe, a skunk, and an opossum. I never leave food in the catio for Rose, but there are bird feeders nearby. I am guessing the critters are attracted to seeds dropped by birds, then wander around just in case something else tasty might be nearby.

A large group of black vultures, along with an increasing number of turkey vultures, have been living and bathing along the creek all summer. They often pose right in front of one of the cameras, as you can see here. The turkey vulture is the one with the lovely red bald head.

There’s at least one beaver actively moving about along the creek. One video this past week caught it swimming at night until a doe approached. The beaver slapped its tail on the water and charged out after the doe, which wisely ran away. Here, the camera caught it from behind, so you can see its wide tail.

We’ve seen at least two eight-point bucks strutting around. They are always together. The does have their own group. They cross the creek to climb the hill to my gardens every few hours, day and night.

Finally, the early hours of September 25 caught three more species. For the first time since late spring, a camera caught three river otters frolicking in the creek after it rose a bit from the rains. They’re hard to see here, but, trust me, there are three of them.

Raccoons are frequently caught by the cameras. This one was out about an hour and a half after the otters. And finally as is often the case when the moon is bright, a camera caught a night-hunting great blue heron stalking the same waters the otters had patrolled a few hours earlier.

That was last week along the creek. Noticeably absent were coyotes. Foxes and bobcats usually appear in winter and early spring.

I remain amazed by the diversity and quantity of native animals that share our five acres with us. We would never know they were here, if not for the wildlife cameras. They probably wouldn’t be here in such numbers if we hadn’t spent the last 32 years enhancing their habitats with well-adapted native plants. Build it. They will come!

 

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Farewell Summer!

Pearl Crescent enjoying a Coreopsis bloom in mid-June

My apologies for my prolonged absence. It’s been a long, strange summer — for most of us, I imagine. I’m planning on being here more reliably henceforth.

As you likely know, today is the last full day of astronomical summer. Finally in my yard today, we are getting measurable rain — a weather phenomenon that has been absent for over two months. Folks 30 miles to my east have experienced flash floods more than once during that time. My yard however, has been a dust bowl. You know it’s bad when tree leaves hang limp even in the early morning. It hurt me to walk around and see them suffering.

Today, however, perhaps to usher in tomorrow’s autumnal equinox, our skies are finally dark. Occasional showers have reawakened the long-dormant rain gauge. I imagine plants and animals alike are reveling in the water as much as I am.

This summer was tough on native butterflies. Posters on the local email butterfly group I follow have been lamenting all summer on the low numbers of lepidopterans observed. They’ve also commented on the low numbers of spiders. I’ve noticed both of these phenomena in my yard too. There was a spell of about six weeks when the only butterflies I saw were a couple of Pearl Crescent butterflies like the one above.

Native solitary bee numbers were variable. For the first time in forever, I had both American bumblebees and brown-belted bumblebees abundantly present on my flowers. Solitary wasps were also present in great numbers, and I think this may have been bad news for my caterpillars. Every time I’d spot a Monarch caterpillar or a black swallowtail caterpillar on my plants, the next day, it would be gone. Wasps were everywhere, searching every leaf, so I suspect they were catching the caterpillars to bury in their nest tunnels to feed their hatchlings. It could have been birds too. They were here in relatively normal numbers this summer, I’m happy to report.

Giant Resin Bee on Common Milkweed inflorescence

Besides the drought, the worst news of the summer for my local Green World was the appearance of a new invasive exotic species. Giant Resin Bee, also called Sculptured Resin Bee (Megachile sculpturalis) is native to Eastern Asia. It was apparently introduced to the US in the 1990s, and showed up in significant numbers at my house this summer. It’s a kind of carpenter bee, but unlike our native carpenter bees, it doesn’t create its own nesting tunnels. Instead, it appropriates tunnels belonging to other insects, especially our native carpenter bees. The link above provides all the information you need to know about this recent invader.

I noticed these bees about mid-June when they were all over my blooming Common Milkweed and Narrow-leaved Mountain Mints. These are big bully bees. They would land on flowers hard, shoving all native pollinators aside as they claimed nectar and pollen for themselves.

I took a photo and posted it to my iNaturalist account in hopes of learning the identity of what was at that point a mystery bee. I got an answer very quickly. The entomologists on iNaturalist must have been watching for reports. In fact, just a few days after my Giant Resin Bee photo was identified, I got an email via iNaturalist from an entomologist in Vienna, Austria working on her Ph.D. on this species. She is doing DNA analysis on this species collected from all the parts of the world to which it has spread. Her goal is to determine migration patterns of the bees, based on DNA analyses of populations. She asked me if I would be willing to collect bees, freeze them to preserve their DNA, then give them to a colleague in the US who would collect them and ship them to her for analysis. Of course, I said yes — citizen science for the win!

These two invaders chased off every other pollinator that had been enjoying the milkweed flowers.

I spent a number of hours patrolling my flowers to collect as many bees as I could for the study. I became adept at spotting the males; they have a characteristic yellow “mustache.” There’s a good photo of this feature in the link above. The females are bigger, less numerous (thank goodness), and showed up about a week after the males appeared, which, the entomologist from Vienna told me, is normal.

All told, I collected 40 Giant Resin Bees, mostly males, which completely flabbergasted Julia (the entomologist). She had never heard of anyone seeing, much less collecting, that many bees. And I think, alas, I know why. There’s one last detail I haven’t told you yet.

Giant Resin Bees evolved in the same part of the world as kudzu, and it is what is called an “effective pollinator” of that plant, which means that when Giant Resin Bees visit kudzu flowers, the flowers get pollinated and set seed. This is a nightmare scenario for those of us living in the Southeastern United States. Up to now, kudzu — although a notorious invasive species — has not been as big a threat to native ecosystems as many other non-native invaders, because it only spread vegetatively. Our native pollinators were not effectively able to pollinate kudzu flowers because they didn’t evolve with them, so kudzu was only rarely setting seed. Thus, all we have had to worry about — as if that wasn’t enough — is the terrifying vegetative growth rate of kudzu, which grows several feet per day during our growing season. But if it starts setting seed reliably, and those seeds spread out via animals and/or natural weather processes and germinate, the potential for kudzu world domination explodes!

When I learned of the Giant Resin Bee-kudzu link, I wrote my favorite local expert, Johnny Randall, Director of Conservation Programs at the North Carolina Botanical Garden, to ask him how worried I should be about kudzu world domination. He told me that if the Giant Resin Bee continues to spread and pollinate kudzu, the only thing standing between us and a Kudzu Apocalypse is a native weevil with a fondness for eating kudzu seeds. I never thought I’d be praying on behalf of a native weevil, but this kudzu-seed-eater has my full support!

Why did I collect so many Giant Resin Bees on my kudzu-free <knock wood> five acres? Because my “neighbor” across the road from me permits kudzu to roam freely over most of his multi-acre property. If not for the busy road that separates us, kudzu vines would have certainly crossed over to our yard years ago. My guess is that kudzu flowers drew the Giant Resin Bees to my neighbor’s yard, then some flew across the road and discovered the abundant native flowers blooming in my gardens.

You’ll see in the link further up that local extension agents are asking folks to report sitings of this bee. They don’t really have a handle on how many are here in the Southeast. I’m betting that if you live near kudzu like I do, these bees will be on a flower near you next June. Be sure to report them if you see them. Meanwhile, I’ve still got 40 frozen Giant Resin Bees in our freezer awaiting pickup by a local entomologist.

 

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For Earth Day: Living Half-Wild

300_puddling ETS group

Dr. J. Drew Lanham was the speaker for this year’s Evelyn McNeill Sims Memorial Lecture at the NC Botanical Garden. The continuing pandemic required his presentation to be virtual, and I am a bit sad about that, because Dr. Lanham was a lyrical, charismatic speaker even on a video screen. I imagine he would have mesmerized a live audience. Plus, selfishly, I would have loved to have been able to ask him to autograph his book for me. I highly recommend it.

Dr. Lanham is a native of Edgefield, SC. He is an Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Master Teacher at Clemson University. He describes himself as a rare bird, because he is a black man and a birder and conservationist. His book is titled, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature.

From the very first pages of Dr. Lanham’s book, I knew I was with a kindred spirit. The passages in which he describes the natural world are effortlessly vivid and lyrical. His profound connection to his family’s farm and surrounding lands on which he grew up is recounted beautifully. His love for his parents and siblings combines with his love of their land to create his deep sense of home. This anchor to his home place likely contributed to his resilience navigating the social inequities faced by people of color in the United States. Dr. Lanham does not pretend those inequities do not exist. I think his connection to the natural world helped him survive difficult times.

Alabama close

Dr. Lanham describes his evolution from boy and young man who mostly conformed to society’s expectations to the man he is today, a man more comfortable with who he is, a man who is often more happy in the natural world than the human-built one. He writes, “But I try to live half-wild, not judging, skirting convention and expectation. I spent too many years inside four walls.” I can totally relate.

As is true of many southerners of his generation, Dr. Lanham was raised in the Christian faith, but he was never comfortable with the angry God described in church, the one who was always watching. These days, he writes, “I’ve settled into a comfortable place with the idea of nature and god being the same thing. Evolution, gravity, change, and the dynamic transformation of field into forest nurture me. …There is righteousness in conserving things, staving off extinction, and simply admiring the song of a bird.” I am right there with him.

Dr. Lanham has been all over the world, but his home place in South Carolina straddled the Piedmont-Coastal Plain transition zone. He understands both landscapes very well. His description of my beloved southern Piedmont region – a zone that encompasses parts of states from Virginia to Alabama – breaks my heart with its accuracy:

“Things are in pieces here, fragments of what used to be. A bit of forest, a bit of field, a wetland rarely – all surrounded by a sea of cement. Acres and acres of asphalt. Even where I find forest, the trees are often planted like row crops. …In most places, the thin crust of topsoil that remains struggles to hide the gummy clay underneath. When the infrequent rains do come, the Midlands weep erosively.”

Dr. Lanham concludes his book by describing his increasing comfort with his role as a proselytizer on behalf of the natural world he loves. He ponders how to re-connect humanity to the natural world from which it arose, on which it relies. As I wrote here, it is a dilemma I also struggle with. He concludes on a hopeful note:

“Trying to do what’s best by nature is a guessing game with long-term stakes. Good decisions mean that the soil and water will prosper. The trees will prosper. The wild things will prosper. In that natural prospering, all of us will become wealthier in richer dawn choruses and endless golden sunsets. The investment is called legacy. If I can see, feel touch, and smell these things once more on a piece of land I can call my own, I’ll be home again. …Home, after all, is more than a place on a map. It’s a place in the heart.”

In his video presentation for the NC Botanical Garden, Dr. Lanham noted that “It’s important for us to be aware of who we are so that we can be better than the day before.” I think he meant that unless we acknowledge our failings as a society, we cannot change them. We are failing each other, and we are failing our home planet, because too many of us are not aware, and therefore see no reason to strive to be better.

He also shared two personal mantras he repeats to himself often. One speaks to the need for awareness of our place on the planet: “Same air, same water, same soil, same Earth, same fate.”

IMG_9920 cinnamon fern and wetland

The other mantra is for himself as a writer tied to the rhythms of the natural world: “Watch, revere, write, repeat.” Of course, that phrase sealed my conviction that he and I are indeed both half-wild kindred spirits. I’ve been following that very guidance for decades. It has never felt more pertinent than it does on this Earth Day.

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The Green Door

Harbinger of Spring

[Note: Photos in this piece were taken in my yard recently but besides serving as evidence of (mostly) native biodiversity, serve no purpose here other than to help you stay awake.]

Most of us probably have memories of favorite teachers. I know I do. During the acquisition of my last master’s degree some 20+ years ago, I was lucky enough to be exposed to four truly gifted, memorable professors. One in particular blew my mind wide open.

I am at heart a practical soul, grounded in earth and flowers. Never have I had an inclination to study philosophy or religion. Frankly, the books – oh yes, I had tried reading a few – always put me to sleep. That changed when I took the late Kalman Bland’s class, Other Worlds and Human Transformations. We read and discussed Plato’s Republic, learned about Thomas Kuhn and the scientific revolution. We read art criticism and the Book of Job, and much more. Dr. Bland never lectured us. Instead, using the Socratic method, he would ask a question and then expect the class to find an answer as he gently nudged us in the right direction. I loved this approach! With each new reading, he subtly steered us to weave seemingly disparate bits into a whole cloth of wondrous colors and insights. The papers he assigned us to write required some of the deepest thinking I’ve ever done for a class.

I am eternally grateful for Dr. Bland’s challenging class, because without it, I would not have figured out what I have been seeking most of my life: The Green Door.

Thomas Kuhn is an American philosopher known for his study of the so-called scientific revolution. He coined a term we all know – paradigm shift. Kuhn invented the term to describe what happens when there is a fundamental change in the basic concepts and experimental practices of a scientific discipline. As I understand it, paradigm shifts occur when someone re-imagines the fundamentals of their world view, and in so doing, permanently changes how the world is perceived by everyone. For example, when Nicolaus Copernicus created a model of the universe that postulated the Earth moved around the sun, that was a paradigm shift, a fundamental change in how the universe was perceived. No longer was Earth the center of the universe.

The Green Door I imagine is the paradigm shift I believe humanity needs in order to avoid destroying itself by abusing our planet so badly that it can no longer sustain us. Try as I might, I have not stumbled across a fundamental re-visioning of humanity’s relationship to Earth that has the power to electrify human thinking so completely that all are inspired to act to preserve rather than destroy our planet. Yes, many wonderful organizations and people all over the world are fighting to preserve biodiversity in their homelands, protect water and air quality, grow food organically, etc., but they are doing so within an old framework that puts such efforts at a great disadvantage.

In most parts of the world, I believe that humanity views the natural world merely as a commodity to which they assign a monetary value. Consider a phrase beloved by the real estate industry: undeveloped land. Beautiful stands of contiguous native forest, grassland, and even small farms are perceived by the real estate industry only as potential sources of income via “development projects.” Ecological value, much less spiritual value of land — these are not concepts that compute for the real estate industry. I have spent decades wracking my brain, trying to imagine a way to re-wire humanity to view Earth as a partner rather than a mere resource. I have not succeeded. In his book about scientific revolutions and paradigm shifts, Kuhn says such big world-changing notions only come to younger minds, under age 40 or so. That’s my excuse, anyway, for not being able to find a Green Door, a paradigm shift in humanity’s relationship with Earth.

I haven’t lost hope. I know a lot of smart young people are working on pieces of this critical puzzle. I just read last week about a new iron-based catalyst that converts carbon dioxide into jet fuel – no petroleum required!  I will continue to pray that these smart younger folks are close to a paradigm-shifting breakthrough that will manifest a human partnership with Earth that will allow all the world’s inhabitants to flourish for many future generations.

While I keep watch for a paradigm-shifting Green Door, I will continue to do what I can for my corner of the planet. I continue to add new well-adapted native species to my five acres of green chaos. I continue to support conservation-focused nonprofits working hard to preserve rapidly diminishing biodiversity and water and air quality, and I continue to write about my experiences in the hope that sharing what I’ve learned can lead at least a few souls closer to the Green Door of my dreams.

With that in mind, those of you who are members of the North Carolina Botanical Garden should see the spring edition of their magazine, Conservation Gardener, showing up in your mailbox early next month. The issue’s theme: preserving biodiversity. You’ll see a few articles in there that I wrote, including one on enhancing native biodiversity in your home landscape. You’ll also see articles about people and organizations in my area that are finding creative ways to enhance biodiversity on farms and suburban greenways.

And while we all wait for the weather to warm up and dry out, you may want to sign up for some upcoming webinars from the NC Wildlife Federation, including these:

Let’s all keep a sharp lookout for a paradigm-shifting Green Door.

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Of Possible Interest to My Readers

A native climbing aster bloom from a rooted cutting in my greenhouse.

Now that I’m not on Facebook, I don’t have an easy way to update folks about upcoming events they may find helpful or of interest — unless I do it here. Today’s post will list some upcoming events sponsored by various organizations in my area. All of these events are free and virtual. I see this as an advantage, because if you live anywhere in the southeastern US, most of the talks described below will be relevant. And even if you’re from a distant land, you may well enjoy some of these. I can’t think of a better way to pass the time until the weather improves enough for serious gardening again.

New Hope Audubon Society

My local chapter of this national non-profit that is, literally, for the birds is a top-notch group of folks. Their Web site is chock full of useful information on native birds, and the section on what they do to promote bird-friendly landscapes is worth a careful read. The blog link covers an array of useful topics, and, yes, you’ll find a couple written by me. I love their monthly meetings that always feature programs by fascinating speakers. Before the pandemic, these meetings (open to all free of charge) were held at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. The virtual meetings are almost as good (virtual mingling is just not the same as the in-person version). This past Thursday, we heard from Bo Howes, of the Triangle Land Conservancy and past president of New Hope Audubon, who explained the vital importance of conservation land not only to native wildlife, but also for preserving water quality and provide socially distant recreation for stir-crazy humans.  Go here to find recordings of all the virtual meetings since last October. I especially recommend that you check out the presentations by Nick Harper and Lesley Starke. You can listen to these recordings any time.

February 25, 2021, 12:00 – 1:00 p.m. — An NC Botanical Garden Virtual Lunchbox Talk in partnership with New Hope Audubon Society

This talk by NC State University Master of Science student Lauren Pharr will describe the effects of urban noise and light pollution on birds. Spoiler alert — the impacts are significant, and not in a good way.  All the NC Botanical Garden Lunchbox talks are free, but you need to register at the link above so they can send you a link to the presentation.

North Carolina Botanical Garden

Like the New Hope Audubon Society, this garden, which focuses entirely on the native vegetation of the southeastern US, has been offering virtual lectures on an array of topics since last year. Numerous excellent past presentations can be viewed free of charge merely by visiting this link. The Garden is also offering an assortment of classes at reasonable prices, and two more free lunchbox talks are on the horizon:

  • Mike Kunz, NCBG Conservation Ecologist, will talk about rare wildflowers of North Carolina on February 11 at noon. Register here.
  • On March 11, Misty Buchanan, Director of the NC Natural Heritage Program, will talk about mitigating climate change through NC’s natural and working lands. Register here for that one.

The Garden has two more special free lectures coming up that may be of interest:

  • This year’s Darwin Day Lecture will be at noon on February 12: Dr. Senay Yitbarek’s lecture is titled, Spatial Structure as a Mechanism for Diversity: Co-existence, Co-infection, and Pathogen Invasion. For more details and to register, go here.
  • I’m looking forward to this year’s annual Evelyn McNeill Sims Native Plant Lecture on April 11 from 2:30-4:00 p.m. Dr. Drew Lanham will discuss “what it means to embrace the full breadth of his African-American heritage and his deep kinship to nature and adoration of birds.” Register here for that one.

North Carolina Native Plant Society

The Southern Piedmont Chapter of this organization is teaming with the UNCC Botanical Gardens to provide a free virtual presentation on Feb. 14 at 2:00 p.m.: How to Help Your Tree Live a Long and Healthy Life.

North Carolina Wildlife Federation

This wonderful non-profit is offering an array of virtual lectures, including their Winter in the Refuges Webinar Series. We missed the first one, but here are your options for the rest of this free virtual series (links take you to relevant registration pages):

Regional chapters of the NC Wildlife Federation are also offering free virtual talks:

With Wonder Spouse’s invaluable assistance, I planted 8 new small bare-root trees yesterday — three each of two native species new to our five acres and two of a species we’ve added in the last few years. I hope to share more details about all recent native species additions soon. Meanwhile, please go check out the upcoming talks at the links above.

Enjoy the views!

 

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Mostly Moonlit Wildlife Wanderings

This eight-point buck was kind enough to pose close to a camera.

I recently took a great many photos of final fall highlights of my yard, and I hope to get them posted here soon. I’ve been distracted by the recent addition of two new wildlife cameras, which Wonder Spouse has strategically installed along the creek that borders our property. The quality of the videos captured by the new cameras is impressive, and the recent full moon seemed to stimulate nocturnal activity. I am hoping to create a PiedmontGardener YouTube channel soon, so that I can post some of the more interesting videos we are capturing. For now, here are a few stills I extracted from some of the videos captured just last week. I’ve left the time/temperature information in the photos, because I think they give each shot a bit more context.

Moonlit creek wading.

In the video from which I extracted the photo above, this buck slowly wades upstream. I love the way the water captures his reflection. I didn’t realize just how many deer are now wandering my area until I saw them in these videos. One night last week, eight does ran one after the other in a line away from the camera, their white tails flashing as they disappear deeper into the forest. 

Not one, but two eight-point bucks.

We have seen one eight-point buck in the cameras many times, but we had no idea we have at least two bucks that size. And they wander the night together at least part of the time. These two hung out here for quite a while, sniffing the air, probably because this shallow piece of water is a favorite creek-crossing area for the does.

A black vulture surveys a favorite bathing spot.

A growing number of black vultures are spending a great deal of time along the creek, where they bathe in the shallows, then dry their great wings in the sun on the bare branches of still-standing trees killed by beaver-induced flooding. We now are capturing many daytime videos of these great birds bathing and arguing. It is fascinating to watch them wade into the shallow water, then dip their heads down into the water to push it up over their wings. 

A vulture just dipping its head beneath the water as it ruffles its feathers to moisten them. Note its many friends loitering around the “pool.”

We have had a couple of rare early morning sitings of river otters that we suspected are now living somewhere along the growing beaver-built wetland adjacent to our property. Our new cameras have now captured them several times. We know there are at least three of them that hang around together, and we’ve seen the area they head into at dawn, where we assume they have a den. But this past week, a camera caught the three of them emerging from the creek to forage on our property. I couldn’t get a clear still shot of all three, but I did get these two as they returned to the creek. One is just entering the water and the other is looking over its shoulder for their companion still lingering on the floodplain out of sight here. You should be able to click on these photos to see larger versions.

River otters enjoying a moonlit foraging expedition.

This final extracted still shot surprised us. We had no idea that Great Blue Herons hunted in the moonlight, even when the temperatures are quite chilly. What an extraordinary delight!

A Great Blue Heron hunting by moonlight.

I love the magical moonlight reflections of these creatures with whom we share our land, and for whom we continue to try to stabilize and enrich their habitat — an increasing necessity as more and more nearby forest is replaced by monotonous suburbs devoid of native biological diversity.

 

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Earth Day 2020: It’s Not Easy Being Green

Kermit the Frog’s well-known song about the travails of being green was about the sense of isolation that comes from being different from other folks. I think it applies equally well to the challenges facing the Green World. These challenges are delineated in detail in Douglas Tallamy’s latest book: Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard.

In his book, Tallamy’s frustration with humanity is frequently evident. The introduction and first four chapters provide a vast amount of research-based data on how and why Planet Earth’s ecosystems are in imminent peril. His conclusion is inescapable and direct: the actions of humanity are responsible for the destruction of the natural world upon which all life relies.

In the introduction, he categorizes people into three groups: animal-lovers, plant-lovers, and the utterly indifferent. The categories reflect his strategy for reaching each of the groups. For animal-lovers, he explains their critical dependence on plants. He shows plant-lovers why animals, especially insects, are essential to the survival of most flora. And for the indifferent, “the hardest group of all to engage,” he did his best, he says, “to explain why we will lose humans if we don’t preserve the plants and animals that keep our ecosystems healthy and sustaining.”

Dr. Tallamy’s solution to the ongoing demise of life on Planet Earth is a concept he calls Homegrown National Park:

“What if each American landowner made it a goal to convert half of his or her lawn to productive native plant communities? Even moderate success could collectively restore some semblance of ecosystem function to more than twenty million acres of what is now ecological wasteland.”

By restoring functioning native ecosystems to our landscapes, he says, we will be creating a far larger national park system than currently exists, where native animals and plants can flourish. And it is a park we will be able to visit whenever we like by simply stepping outside our homes and offices. It is a wonderful vision, reminding me a great deal of a notion I helped develop and continue to pitch for my region called Piedmont Patch.

Tallamy does not introduce his Homegrown National Park concept until chapter five. His opening chapters provide a brief history of earlier conservation efforts and begin to offer reams of data interspersed with explanations of underlying scientific ecological concepts as he proceeds to build his case according to the standard scientific writing approach. After chapter five, he offers four more chapters full of data-based factoids and solidly reasoned arguments on ways to rebuild carrying capacity and the impact of invasive, non-native species.

Here’s a factoid from chapter six: A massive scientific study called the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was published in 2005 and concluded then that by the turn of the century (20 years ago), “we had destroyed 60 percent of the earth’s ability to support us.” That factoid should make anyone who loves their children and grandchildren swallow hard. Alas, it is buried in the middle of a chapter, as are many other staggering bits of information, where only a careful reader will ever see it.

Chapter seven is on invasive non-native plants; he calls them alien plants. As someone who has been sermonizing to anyone willing to listen about the negative impacts of these invaders for 25 or so years, I found this chapter helpful, because Tallamy succinctly dissects every point made by those who would have us believe that these invaders are no big deal, just Nature being Nature. Be assured, I will have his well-constructed arguments at the ready the next time someone tries to persuade me about the “benefits” of invasive non-native plants. Here’s just one of his very helpful explanations on this subject:

“Every time a native plant is removed from an ecosystem, or even diminished in abundance, populations of all of the animals that depend exclusively on that plant are also removed or diminished, as are the natural enemies of those species. In sum, then, at the local scale – the scale that counts ecologically – invasive plants typically decimate local species diversity, and claims to the contrary have not been supported by rigorous field studies” (emphasis mine).

It is not until chapter eight, Tallamy’s chapter on the critical need to restore insect species, that he finally offers a key piece of practical information on helping landowners restore native plants to their properties. He explains the concept of “keystone plants,” the species in a given ecosystem on which the greatest percentage of other ecosystem members rely. For example, when looking at which plants support the most caterpillars, the larval forms of moths and butterflies (Lepidoptera), he and his research assistant discovered that “wherever we looked, about 5 percent of the local plant genera hosted 70 to 75 percent of the local Lepidoptera species!”

Oak (Quercus spp.) is a Tallamy top keystone genus.

Tallamy therefore advises that it is essential to plant keystone species appropriate to your area when you decide to restore native plants to your property. His research assistant, Kimberley Shropshire, spent a year compiling a massive database that identifies which insect species rely on which plants. This database has been used by two different conservation organizations to develop free applications for the public to use when planning native restorations of their properties. Tallamy buries this important (to my mind, anyway) bit of information in the middle of chapter eight.

Willow (Salix spp.) like this blooming black willow, is another Tallamy keystone genus.

After you enter your zip code, these applications generate lists of native plants suitable for your area, and the lists are ordered, so that keystone species – the plants critical for supporting the most insect species – are listed first, encouraging you to include them in your design. A few pages later, Tallamy explains why this is critical to the successful creation of a functioning ecosystem on your property: “A landscape without keystone genera will support 70 to 75 percent fewer caterpillar species than a landscape with keystone genera, even though the keystone-less landscape may contain 95 percent of the native genera in the area.” In other words, you’ll be planting a pretty native landscape of no use to native birds and other wildlife if you omit keystone species from your design.

The two applications based on Shropshire’s research are:

In chapter ten, Tallamy explains why he thinks his concept, Homegrown National Park, will work. He suggests that reasoned arguments and education will turn the tide with HOAs, which is what I would expect a man of science like Dr. Tallamy to believe. He’s not entirely wrong. I know of a couple of local HOAs that have been slowly persuaded on the merits of native plant landscapes. Scientific arguments were part of the process, but much emotion-based persuasion was also involved. I believe financial arguments are also critical to persuading HOAs and landowners, and Tallamy ignores this aspect entirely. He also doesn’t mention the need to persuade the real estate and horticultural industries that native landscapes can still be money-makers for them.

In his final chapter, Tallamy gets around to explicitly listing ten steps landowners can take to make Homegrown National Park a reality. It is a short chapter, because, I imagine, he expects that readers have already digested the carefully laid out research and arguments in the previous 204 pages. They are solid, easy-to-implement steps. I hope and pray his notions take hold and sweep the nation.

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) is an herbaceous keystone genus.

However, unless many of us who already have a decent grasp of ecology and native plants and animals make Tallamy’s book a jumping-off point for persuasion-based presentations of our own, I fear that the vast majority of Americans in his third category – the utterly indifferent – will not be moved to even read the book.

Aster (Symphyotrichum spp.) is another keystone genus.

Let me be clear. In my estimation, there is nothing wrong with the content of Tallamy’s book. His research and conclusions are rock-solid. But as a professional writer and editor of many decades, it is my opinion that this book would have benefitted greatly from a developmental edit that could have shaped its contents into a more persuasive and accessible form specifically targeted to his most challenging audience – the utterly indifferent plant-blind humans who don’t see or appreciate the natural world the way he does, the way I do, the way most of my blog followers do.

Yes, this book gives us Greenies more ammunition for our arguments with HOAs and neighbors; the Frequently Asked Questions section at the back of the book will be especially helpful with that. But will this book persuade the indifferent? I fear it is unlikely.

On this Earth Day and every day, it’s not easy being green, as any plant, hungry caterpillar, or ecologically aware human will tell you. Tallamy’s new book provides us with important information to share with those indifferent to Nature’s wonders. But in my estimation, on its own, it is not a book that will persuade those still blind to the natural world to join the green side. I very much hope I’m wrong.

Happy Earth Day to all!

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For Earth Day: Invite Your Neighbors In

Critter camera capture on January 9, 2019

Wonder Spouse and I have been privileged to live on the same five acres of North Carolina Piedmont for 30 years. When I first saw the land covered in melting snow on a January day in 1989, I knew enough to recognize its potential. A diverse array of mature trees offered clues about soils and microclimates. In my mind’s eye, I could imagine the native species that should be present, and others that would do well if I added them.

A raccoon caught by the critter cam on February 27, 2019

Still, my little green haven exceeds my expectations nearly every time I walk it. Something — or someone — new is always appearing, and I believe it is because Wonder Spouse and I have deliberately chosen plants that have filled in some of the missing pieces of native ecosystems that I detected three decades ago. As a friend recently wrote to me, “If you plant it, they will come.”

Probable fish crow caught by the critter cam on the afternoon of March 6

When some birder friends of ours stopped by last fall and walked our land with us, they said they observed/heard about 60 bird species during the course of our walk. The high number is in part due to the growing beaver-built pond and wetland off our property on the other side of the creek. The raised water levels have attracted all manner of aquatic species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. Many of those species occasionally wander over to our side of the creek to explore. I know this for a fact now, thanks to the critter camera that Wonder Spouse gifted me with this past January. We attached it to a tree and aimed it at a path along the creek, where we often see deer tracks. Thanks to the camera, we now know that many species besides deer routinely travel that path.

I realize that most folks aren’t lucky enough to live beside a healthy wetland, but even a quarter-acre lot possesses microclimates created by directional exposure and topographic variations. You can instantly serve more native wildlife guests by providing a small water feature, such as an ornamental pond. We have such a feature at our front entrance. Every year, frogs from the wetland find it, chorus lustily, then deposit gelatinous eggs that become tadpoles that eventually morph into new frogs. Amphibians are always on the lookout for such ponds, because they are usually protected from at least some of their predators, raising the odds of success for tadpoles to become frogs.

I partially immerse pots of water-loving native plants in my water feature to add visual interest and to provide cover for amphibian visitors.

On this Earth Day 2019, I encourage all my plant-loving readers to revisit your landscape designs for additional opportunities to provide habitat for native wildlife. Rapid urbanization of the southeastern US Piedmont region is destroying many areas that once sheltered our wildlife. Ecological degradation caused by environmental pollution, invasive non-native species intrusion, and climate change-related weather shifts is causing dramatic reductions in our native wildlife from insects to birds to larger animals. Every human home landscape can make a critical difference to the continuing survival of our native wildlife.

You may not see quite the diversity of species my critter camera has captured on my five acres, but you will notice an uptick in beautiful songbirds if you plant native shrubs that provide food and cover and perhaps add a few nesting boxes and a bird bath or two. Those same shrubs will provide habitat for the caterpillars songbirds use to feed their nestlings. But they won’t eat them all, meaning you’ll see an uptick in butterflies and moths.

A pollinator garden is a beautiful way to invite native wildlife into your yard.

Your yard will come to life before your eyes. Your landscape will be vibrantly beautiful and healthy. And you will have the satisfaction of knowing you are doing your small but vital part to keep the blue-green jewel we call Mother Earth alive and healthy.

 

 

 

 

 

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