Been a long time, been a long time…

So, it’s been a long time since I posted a blog.  It looks like I have 6 followers, two of which are surely my husband and my mother, so I’m not likely disappointing many people…  😉

To catch the other four of you up, we’ve recently moved and are in the middle of selling one of the two houses (next door to each other) that we used to live in.  The landscaping in the yard of the house for sale (now under contract) is all native and I have detailed maps and lists of all the plants in the yard– more than 60 species.   I put them online, along with some other resources for potential buyers and, if you’re interested, you can see them here: http://forthebirdsandthebees.com/5236-Auburndale-Rd.php.

The property to which we moved last year is about a half hour outside of Charlotte.  The house, built in the 1950s, is on a 2-acre lot which looks like it has probably been mown throughout every growing season ever since then.  With the exception, of course, of a few landscaped areas of Chinese holly, Japanese privet, and English ivy.  So much of my “leisure time” recently has been spent cutting down decades-old hollies and privet and pulling up English ivy.  We bought the property in the winter, so last summer I pretty much “let the yard go” to see what, if anything other than “lawn” would sprout up.  I was pleased by the one random orchid that popped up in the front yard, but I’ve also discovered that we’ve got quite an infestation of various other invasive plants– Chinese wisteria snaking all over the place, Japanese stilt grass and monkey grass (Liriope) invading the “lawn area”, and creeping Charlie, also known as ground ivy (and probably other names, as well).

I spent some time tilling and seeding a good deal of the “lawn” area with Eco-lawn, a mix of low-growing native grasses that I won’t have to mow to keep in line with the city ordinance that insists “all vegetation” be kept under 12″ tall (that’s another story for another day).  Much of the info out there on Eco-lawn says it does well in the sun and in the shade, but my experience with it here and in Charlotte is that it does well in the shade here.  It might do okay in the sun if it gets watered regularly, but when we go periods of 3 weeks in the middle of the summer with no rain, it does not do well in the sunny areas.

I’ve converted a dry, sunny, mostly barren corner of the front yard into a pollinator meadow and have dug up half of the monkey grass in the “island” of the circular driveway to replace it with pollinator-enticing plants.  Those areas are doing very well and attracting a good diversity and abundance of butterflies, bees, and wasps.

Underneath the canopy trees (mature oaks , pines, and tulip poplar) in the front yard, I’m introducing an understory layer of small trees (such as redbud, dogwood, sourwood, and witch hazel) and shrubs (toothless viburnum, hydrangeas, sweetspire, and beauty berry).   The plan is to also include many species of shade-loving perennials, but there’s not too much to report yet on that front…

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Climate change skeptics

Climate change skeptics

I recently had a discussion with someone who remains skeptical of the magnitude of climate changes.  Many people living in places such as central North Carolina aren’t experiencing any drastic changes.  The weather here has always been highly variable.  It’s one of those places where not incredibly rare to feel like you’ve experience all the seasons in a week’s time.  There are heat waves and cold spells, periods of drought and flooding.  It’s understandable that someone living here may not believe the hype about drastic problems with the changing climate.

Just today, I read an article in the news about a “pirated” river.  Basically, a large river had existed in its perceived permanent path for all of human recorded history.  Now that  river has disappeared.  Where did it go?  The river was fed mainly by glacial meltwater.  The glacier melted to the point that a canyon opened up that re-directed the water off the other side of the mountain.  Wow!  Now the people who live in towns along the river’s previous course are going to have to change their lifestyle and water use habits considerably, because they no longer have the river right at their door.  This is an example of the fairly large-scale geological changes that are happening in various places around the world at a rate that has not occurred in the history of human civilization as we know it.  And I bet very few people in North Carolina know about this occurrence of “river piracy”.

People in relatively undeveloped parts of the world have been noticing dramatic changes in their environments in recent years.  Some of them have had the opportunity to create short documentaries about the new challenges their communities are facing with the changing climate.  Their combined efforts have culminated in the Indigenous Voices on Climate Change Film Festival.  The webpage for this film festival has links to some short documentaries and also to other webpages that host videos, pictures, and stories from indigenous communities around the world.

My husband and I visited the Caribbean island of Trinidad a few years ago. We drove to the sparsely populated end of the island to see the tar pits.  A small, wrinkled, old man was our guide.  He told us that the seasons there don’t come reliably, like they used to.  The dry and rainy seasons used to be well-defined and predictable.  But in recent years, the rains have been very unpredictable, making it difficult for the farmers to know when the best times are to plant and harvest their crops.  It may seem odd to many people that this old man living in a very rural area on a Caribbean island brings up the topic of climate change with two random tourists on the tar lakes, but these changes in weather patterns have had significant impacts on his life.  He has lived long enough to be able to recognize that weather patterns have, indeed, shifted.  And his life is in tune with that of nature in a way that those of people who live in cities are not.

The vast majority of climate change skeptics in the world live in the continental U.S. where many people’s lives have not been affected by the changing climate.  They have reliable HVAC systems that insulate them from the outside world.  They go from their house to the car to a building, back to the car and back into the house.  They don’t grow their own food– they don’t have to.  It’s reliably available to them at the store down the road, in spite of any floods or droughts that farmers in the Andes or central Africa are experiencing.   Most news reported in the U.S. is not about the water scarcity problems of communities in the Himalayas or the flooding issues of Polynesian islands.  The news we get is what Donald Trump tweeted this week and how Saturday Night Live spoofed it.  We learn that O.J. Simpson was just released from jail, and that Elon Musk has proposed a new method of transportation.

In the 1990s, the United Nations gathered together more than 2000 esteemed climate scientists from 195 different countries.  The task assigned to this group of scientists was to read ALL the scientific studies from all around the world relating to climate and to write up a report to summarize ALL that research.  The group was named the International Panel on Climate Change.  This group of scientists has been meeting every few years since then to review all the recently published scientific studies and update their findings to reflect the inclusion of the most recent research.  Their reports are made public, along with much of the information they used to put together their reports.

I encourage climate change skeptics to stop taking other peoples’ word for whether or not climate change is occurring and at what magnitude.  I challenge all skeptics to instead read the reports themselves and draw their own conclusions based on all the data presented.  Go to www.ipcc.ch to read about worldwide studies.  Or go to climate.nasa.gov to critically analyze for yourself data collected by the U.S. governmental researchers.  You can go to nca2014.globalchange.gov to read a synthesis of national research.  Go to nas-sites.org/americasclimatechoices to read what the National Academy of Sciences has to say.

You wouldn’t ask your congressman to diagnose your health problems.  Don’t rely on them to diagnose the environment.  To get the best analysis of a situation, you go to the experts in that field.  Get the information straight from the horse’s mouth and then make your own decision based on what you learn.

Suburban ecological traps

Suburban ecological traps

An ecological trap is a situation that may seem appealing to organisms, but that is actually detrimental to them.  The situation that made me think of this tonight is the intense mate-calling of frogs in our backyard.  We have a swimming pool in our backyard.  We put a cover over it in the winter to prevent leaves and gumballs (from the sweet gum tree) from accumulating in it over the winter.  Then in the spring, we scoop all the leaves and gumballs off the cover and remove the cover to “open” the pool.  It’s easier to scoop the leaves and gumballs off the cover than it is to try to scoop them out of the bottom of the pool.

This year, I don’t know if we were a bit late or if the frogs were a bit early, but frogs began laying eggs in the water on top of the pool cover before we had gotten a chance to remove it.  All of a sudden, it seemed, there were hundreds of tiny tadpoles in the water on the pool cover.  While we typically have no problem draining the insects from the pool cover to their deaths in the terrestrial habitat of the back yard, we couldn’t fathom killing literally hundreds of vertebrates– the tadpoles.  So, to make a long story short, over a period of a few weeks, we removed overall a grand total of a few thousand tadpoles and transported them to a nearby pond to complete their little froggie lives.  Then we removed the pool cover.  End of story, right?

Well, I had thought so.  These are grey tree frogs, and they typically lay their eggs in still water.  Our pool filter is constantly moving the water, so it doesn’t qualify as “still water”.  To me, at least.  Do insects lay their eggs in our swimming pool?  We have observed dragonfly mating in the pool area and it is possible that they lay eggs in our pool.  But if they do, the eggs would get sucked into the pool’s filter and cease to exist.  I’m certainly fine with that happening to any mosquito eggs that may be laid in the pool.  What about dragonflies?  They’re more “charismatic” than mosquitos…  And what about frogs, which are fellow vertebrates, after all– a characteristic that for some reason makes us more willing to empathize…

So, this evening, the frogs in our backyard were calling at a decibel level topping 80 at times. There were a half dozen frogs that I could easily see around the pool, and more calling that I couldn’t see.  I watched as a female selected the male calling from the raft we leave in the pool as a “life-saving device” for critters that may fall in.  I guess, actually being *in* the pool made him the king of the area.  Amplexus occurred, but then I watched at the female, with the male on her back, swam half the length of the pool, climbed out (with the male still hanging on), and disappeared into the night without releasing eggs.  There is no other body of standing water within at least a few hundred yards, so it seems that this mating encounter was fruitless.

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So, is our pool, and are other suburban pools, an ecological trap?  The presence of the swimming pool as a water body lures the frogs into thinking it’s adequate mating habitat.  The males expend a good deal of time and energy calling for mates and defending territories where their offspring will never be produced.  The females seek out mates and carry them around for a while but, if eggs are laid, they are surely sucked into the pool’s filtration system and never hatch– thus no offspring will result from their efforts.  This would be the same for dragonflies, mosquitoes, and any other organisms trying to lay their eggs in water.

I propose that backyard swimming pools are a substantial ecological trap, contributing to the recent and significant declines in populations of amphibians and insects with aquatic larval stages.  A quick search on Google Scholar revealed zero hits for papers on “swimming pool” and “ecological trap”.  Think I could get funding to study this?  😉

Low pollinator populations this summer

I have noticed unusually low populations of pollinators this summer.  Very rare is the occasion this year that I have seen any pollinators at all on specific plants that, in past years, have been swarming with bees, flies, and wasps every time I walk by them.

One possible reason for the low numbers of pollinators could be the ever-increasing use of pesticides.  For the last several years, field biologists have been warning that pollinator numbers have been getting dangerously low.  You may recall the hype about Colony Collapse Disorder affecting honeybees or the outcry from many scientists and environmentalists that the abundant use of neonicotinoids (a group of insecticides outlawed in the EU but abundantly used here in the U.S.) is having severely negatively effects on native pollinators.

But, the low numbers this year could be due to the fact that we had an exceptionally warm winter.  Many plants began flowering remarkably early this year and many insects emerged very early due to the warm ground temperatures.  Then, in mid-March, we had about a week of very cool days with nights below freezing, and even a dusting of snow.  Possibly, insects that had emerged from hibernation early due to the abnormally warm soil temperature were unable to sustain themselves through that cold snap.  I certainly noticed far fewer canker worms in our trees this year than there typically are, possibly for that same reason.

When the numbers of a species fall below a certain threshold, it becomes very difficult for them to bounce back.  The many types of insects we rely on to pollinate our crops and that are relied upon for food by so many species of birds, amphibians, and reptiles are suffering a myriad of hazards these days.  Between pesticide use, habitat destruction (clearing of land for development), and the wacky climate patterns we’re experiencing due to the melting of the Arctic ice cap, it would be surprising indeed if populations of insects were stable!

At what point will we need to begin hand-pollinating our crops?  Apparently, in some parts of China, they’re already doing so.  I don’t think that is the kind of “job creation” our next generation will appreciate our leaving them…

Leaf miners

Leaf miners

I love the little designs I see in leaves made by “mining” insects.  In the picture above, you can see trails from leaf miners on the leaves of columbine and on a species of lily.  The lines are made by larvae of beetles, flies, or moths that live inside the leaf.  They crawl around in between the upper and lower layers of the epidermis, munching on the mesophyll cells.  Being sandwiched between the layers of the leaf epidermis, the larvae are safe from predators while they’re growing.  As adults, they emerge from the leaves, and then the females will lay their own eggs on the surfaces of other leaves and the cycle will begin again.

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The shade of a tree

The shade of a tree

Having the shade of a canopy tree is greatly appreciated on a sunny day.  How often do we think about how long it took that tree to get large enough to provide us with that shade?  How long will it continue to live and provide us with shade?  While many trees can live to be hundreds of years old, it is not the norm.  Think about how many acorns each oak tree produces each fall.  Consider how many of those spiny balls fall off each sweet gum tree; those each contained a few dozen seeds.  Now think about how many hundred-year-old trees there are where you see those acorns and sweet gum balls.  Not very many of those babies make it to old age.

Many of the largest, oldest trees in Charlotte were planted about a hundred years ago.  It is not unheard of for trees to live to be a few hundred years old; some trees have been alive for more than a thousand years.  But trees growing in an urban, or even suburban, environment have to put up with numerous stressors they would not have in a forest.  They are subjected to significant air pollution, light pollution, soil compaction, and reduced water availability.  The soil is nothing like what would be found in a forest.

I have two tulip poplar trees in my front yard that are probably around 70 years old.  This is relatively old for urban trees.  They provide ample and greatly appreciated shade to the house and yard.  They’re healthy now, but if I want to maintain a shady house and yard, I need to plan for their replacements now.   One might argue that there’s not room in my front yard for more than two large, mature trees.  That’s true.  But my planning now for the demise of the two current residents doesn’t mean I am going to plant two large trees now.  It means I will plant small trees now.  Those small trees will grow very slowly for the next decade or two, in the shade of the large poplars which have deep roots, drawing nutrients and water from depths unavailable to the small trees.  Then, in a decade or two or three, when the tulip poplars are no longer healthy and come down, I will have a couple of sub-canopy trees that will then be able to quickly take advantage of the extra water, nutrients, and light available to become good shade trees in a handful of years as opposed to my having to wait another 40 years for newly planted trees to grow.

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“Garden Revolution:  How our landscapes can be a source of environmental change”

“Garden Revolution: How our landscapes can be a source of environmental change”

I just finished reading this book by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It was a wonderful reminder that instead of altering the landscape to suit the needs of the plants we want to use, we should be instead determining what plants will do best in the environment as it is.  The plants will be much more successful that way, and there will be much less maintenance required!

The authors provide numerous stories about how various situations they’ve been in began with one mindset but ended up being tremendously successful by their recognizing some aspect of the landscape that clued them in about what plants would be best suited to the area.

Gorgeous pictures and very inspiring.  I highly recommend it.