Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Preventing Plant Invasions

Monday, June 28th, 2010

By Janet Marinelli
AS THE OLD saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. This is especially true of the struggle to control invasive species.

In the New York metropolitan area, where I live, roadsides have been overtaken by solid stands of purple loosestrife, and forest understories are thick with Japanese barberry.

Biologists consider invasive species such as these to be one of the two greatest threats to native plants and animals, second only to the outright loss of habitat to suburban sprawl, agriculture, and industrial development. Land managers fight a daily battle to remove invasives from important natural areas.

The conventional wisdom, at least in horticultural circles, used to be that most invasive plants were introduced accidentally—in agricultural seed stocks, say, or even on the bottom of some unsuspecting tourist’s shoes.

But during the course of researching Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s influential 1996 handbook Invasive Plants: Weeds of the Global Garden, my colleagues and I were dismayed to discover that about half of the worst invasive plants currently degrading natural habitats from coast to coast were brought here intentionally, for horticultural use.

While the vast majority of species planted on highway rights-of-way, in public landscapes, and in home gardens are not invasive, a small percentage have adapted too well and escaped cultivation. These plants have become established, or naturalized, in the wild.

Not every naturalized plant is a threat to native ecosystems, however. The BBG handbook Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants is concerned with those nonnative plants that not only establish viable populations in but also alter the structure and/or functioning of those ecosystems.

Many invasive plants are still being sold as garden specimens or for wildlife plantings and erosion control, despite their documented ability to degrade natural areas. And although no system is in place to effectively screen them for potential invasiveness, new plants from around the world are constantly being introduced to satisfy the preoccupation with the new and exotic that has characterized horticulture for at least the past hundred years.

The more we learn about invasive plants, the more we realize how difficult they are to control, much less eradicate. The most prudent course of action clearly is to avoid planting these species in the first place.

Since BBG’s original handbook on invasive plants was published, we have received numerous requests for a companion volume featuring ecologically safe alternatives. The Encyclopedia of Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants, at the heart of this book, recommends a variety of beautiful, regionally native species that fill the same needs as the worst nonnative invasive plants commonly used in horticulture.

If you select these species, it is highly unlikely that you will be unleashing North America’s next invasive menace. Regional natives aren’t the only ecologically responsible choices; nonnatives that have been planted in gardens for decades without demonstrating any signs of invasiveness are good candidates for landscaping as well.

But by selecting regional natives you will be preserving the natural character of your area. You will also be preserving the complex interrelationships between the native plants and the butterflies, birds, and myriad other creatures with which they have coevolved.– Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Prairie Plant Seen As Promising Fuel Option

Monday, June 28th, 2010

By Bob Secter
CHILLICOTHE, IA — If there were such a thing as a Comeback Plant of the Year award–maybe Comeback of the Century–a top contender would have to be switchgrass, a dominant part of the tallgrass prairie that once blanketed much of North America.

That vast sea of grasses, so thick and high that pioneers said it could swallow a rider on horseback, all but disappeared as sodbusters ripped it away to make room for lush and productive cropland.

What was an obstacle to progress 150 years ago suddenly is getting a fresh, hard look as a major source of fuel. Our energy-starved nation is scrambling to come up with alternatives to limited supplies of expensive oil and natural gas, and there’s a growing buzz about switchgrass even though most Americans would need a botanical guide to identify it.

Agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland Co., the world’s largest producer of ethanol made from corn, this month unveiled plans to ramp up research into switchgrass as another source to make ethanol and other biofuels for cars, homes and industry. In Washington, the Democrats soon to take over as heads of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have put development of switchgrass as a fuel source high on their priority list.

This is a “natural evolution of an industry that could be massive,” said Patricia Woertz, chief executive of Decatur, Ill.-based ADM.

Also known as tall panic grass, switchgrass doesn’t look much like the grasses that cover today’s lawns. It is a lanky plant, with stems up to 8 or 9 ft. high and a root system just as deep, topped with lacy seed-bearing panicles. It grows in thick, jungle-like tangles.

It also is especially good at storing energy from the sun. “A living solar battery” is what Canadian switchgrass researcher Roger Samson calls it.

The U.S. Agriculture Department calls switchgrass “perhaps our most valuable native grass.” Oak Ridge National Laboratory has identified it as the model plant species for fuel, better than corn, which is all the rage now as the prime ingredient of ethanol. President Bush highlighted the energy potential of switch grass in his State of the Union address this year.

So, like a once-treasured toy rediscovered after years in the attic, switchgrass is now the focus of talk about its revival–this time as a cash crop–on tens of millions of acres in the Midwest, South and Great Plains.

“This could very well be the future,” said Stephen Gardner, one of dozens of southeastern Iowa farmers who for years have supplied switchgrass for an electric generating experiment in Chillicothe that has shown encouraging results.

The notion of converting vegetation into fuel may seem odd in a nation that runs on oil, gas and coal. But fossil fuels themselves are the detritus of ancient plants, buried in the earth for millions of years.

They are also a finite resource, while fuel crops can be grown again and again. “Nature figured out long ago how to store chemical energy in plants,” explained Robert Brown, director of the office of biorenewable programs at Iowa State University.

University of Illinois Research
Energy can be squeezed from most any plant, and there are a lot of them under study these days as potential fuel sources. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is leading the way in research on giant miscanthus, a grass native to Asia. It can grow to 13 ft. with bamboo-like stems ripe for burning.

The trick today is to target the plants that can be most efficiently grown and tapped for fuel. For now, the renewable fuel of choice in the U.S. is corn-based ethanol. It is essentially alcohol made from the starches in grain. Humans have been fermenting and drinking it since prehistoric times.

Corn is abundant, and it has a clout-heavy lobby of farmers and agribusiness promoting it for ethanol, which is largely blended with gasoline. But corn has limitations as a raw material for fuel. Divert a lot of corn to ethanol production and food prices are bound to rise. Corn also is a resource hog, requiring good soil and lots of water, fertilizer and herbicide, heightening environmental concerns.

One prominent researcher contends it takes more fossil energy to grow and transform cornstarch into ethanol than the new fuel can yield, suggesting the process is a waste. Other experts disagree, but if there is an energy benefit to making ethanol this way, it is not huge.

The hope for switchgrass is that it may bypass a lot of those problems while providing more bang for the energy buck in an ecologically friendly and low-maintenance way.

The explanation hearkens back to the prairies of old. Near-treeless vistas of undulating grass once stretched from the Gulf of Mexico up into Canada, providing a feasting ground for birds and other wildlife and packing the soils with nutrients. The grasses once covered 60 percent of what is now Illinois, which calls itself the Prairie State.

Ironically, the fertile soil of the prairie also was its undoing. The farmers who eventually chopped it away liked to boast that the prairie topsoil was so deep and rich that it could grease the axles of their wagons.

There were lots of different grasses in the Midwest prairie, but switchgrass was one of the three predominant varieties. It didn’t need much water, it adapted to a wide range of latitudes and soils, and it sucked in a lot of carbon dioxide from the air as fuel to grow on.

Prairie fires burned so hot that they would create their own cyclones, a testament to the energy that the grasses stored away.

Those are some of the traits that are kindling interest in switchgrass as the nation scrambles to grow its way into energy self-sufficiency. David Bransby, a grasslands expert at Auburn University in Alabama, suggests a few more.

And It Grows Prodigiously
Bransby, who has studied switchgrass for 20 years, says the plant grows prodigiously, yielding huge per-acre amounts of what the energy industry calls biomass–a term for living material that can be turned into fuel.

Switchgrass requires no herbicides and little fertilizer, it can take hold on poor-quality land not suitable for most crops, and it is a perennial, meaning it doesn’t have to be replanted like corn after each harvest. Stands of good-quality switchgrass can last 10 years or more.

Switchgrass also has ecological benefits, Bransby said. Its deep roots bind soil and block erosion. They also pump a lot of carbon into the ground, essentially recycling carbon-based greenhouse gases emitted when the plant is burned as fuel.

“If we really put our minds to it, we can use this to help replace the oil we import from the Middle East very easily in the next 20 years,” Bransby said.

Unlike with corn, a cost-effective process to convert switchgrass and other fibrous plant material into ethanol hasn’t been perfected, though researchers say they’re close. ADM’s Woertz said biofuel producers right now are in a “chicken and egg” situation as they explore the potential of switchgrass.

“How do you build massive facilities when you haven’t grown the stuff yet, and then how do you grow the stuff if you haven’t anywhere to process it?” she asked.

Some experts argue that switchgrass would be an even better option as an ingredient for fuels other than ethanol, and the technology to make them exists now.

Samson, who runs a non-profit agricultural research institute in Quebec, said switchgrass already is being used to make a low-quality natural gas substitute suitable for heating farm structures and small industrial buildings. Such biogas systems are in wide use in Germany and China, he said.

Switchgrass also can be easily chopped and pressed into fuel pellets for burning in special furnaces to heat homes, Samson said. The slow-burning pellets heat for a price far less than natural gas, quickly paying for the cost of new heating equipment, he said.

“We think we’re heading toward an agrarian industrial revolution,” Samson predicted.

In Iowa, Gardner and more than 100 other growers have supplied switchgrass for years to a federally sanctioned experiment that burns the grass alongside coal in a power plant in tiny Chillicothe, 80 miles southeast of Des Moines. Preliminary results indicate that switchgrass burns almost as hot as the coal, and its presence in the fuel mix reduces sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide emissions.

The Iowa farmers reaped their switchgrass from stands they had planted as part of the federal conservation reserve program, which pays farmers to take erosion-prone, low-quality cropland out of production.

Around the country, there are 36 million acres enrolled in the program, an area that if stitched together would cover every square inch of Illinois. Some already is planted in switch grass to help with erosion control.

In the prairies of old, nature mixed in switchgrass with other plant varieties that kept each other in check. That wouldn’t be the case if it is reintroduced as a fuel crop across wide stretches of the nation, and the prospect is troubling to some experts in invasive species.

Writing recently in the journal Science, a team of researchers led by S. Raghu of the Illinois Natural History Survey warned that wholesale plantings of switchgrass, miscanthus or other grasses grown for fuel could have an ecological downside.

The grasses are attracting interest as biofuel crops because they grow rapidly, need little water and appear resistant to most pests and diseases. But those are also traits that help invasive species wreak havoc on ecosystems and agriculture.

The U.S. spends more than $100 billion annually trying to beat back the ravages of invasive species such as kudzu, so Raghu and his colleagues urged caution as the pressure to develop new crops for fuel intensifies.

Pushing Forward For Outdoor Education

Monday, June 28th, 2010

By: Tom Ackerman
AS A RESULT of the testing mania that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has driven across the country, fewer and fewer students are allowed to investigate the natural world as part of their formal education.

Instead, they are subjected to two and three extra sessions of math and reading, and spend educational time learning how to take tests. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) is leading a national coalition to reverse this trend and give every student and teacher the opportunity to “Learn Outside!”

Over the last year CBF has built a network of over 110 partners including the Sierra Club, National Wildlife Foundation, Audubon Society, Nation Education Association, WindStar Wildlife Institute and others.

Each coalition partner believes that every child needs to be educated about the environment in order to make sound personal decisions and to grow into a responsible citizen. The only way to guarantee this outcome is to amend the controversial No Child Left Behind law, which has unintentionally reduced the number of schools and students who can participate in valuable environmental education experiences like those created by CBF educators throughout the watershed.

The hard work of CBF and its NCLI coalition partners have led to level of success that some thought impossible. Two NCLI bills have been introduced in the House and Senate: HR 3036 was introduced in the House by MD representative John Sarbanes, and S 1981 was sponsored in the Senate by Jack Reed of Rhode Island.

An active campaign on key Congressional committees and across the nation has resulted in bi-partisan co-sponsor ship of each bill, and environmental education was included in Chairman Miller’s draft version of NCLB – the only new program to be included.

We are winning, but the road ahead is long. We need your continued action and support as we attempt to persuade more members of Congress to co-sponsor the NCLI Acts, and as we look toward debate on the floor of the House and Senate.

If you want to learn more about our efforts or what you can do to make sure that every student learns to treasure the environment, visit www.cbf.org/eenclb.

Reproductive Rate Key To Small Game Populations

Monday, June 28th, 2010

By Scott Shalaway
AFTER WEEKS of unseasonably warm temperatures, there’s finally a fall chill in the air. Cooler temperatures and falling leaves trigger distant memories.

When I turned 12, my father took me hunting for the first time. We had a bird dog, and on Saturday mornings we roamed nearby fields in search of ring-necked pheasants and cottontails. I learned gun safety and hunting strategy in pursuit of small game. October was the highlight of our hunting season.

Though hunting is on the decline, millions of hunters across the country still pursue pheasants, cottontails, squirrels and other small game species. The obvious question to a casual observer is, “how can these small animals sustain such relentless hunting pressure?”

The answer is “reproductive potential.” That’s the term biologists use to describe the high reproductive rate of these species.

Cottontails, for example, begin breeding in February unless winter’s grip in unusually firm. As birthing time approaches, the female digs a shallow hole in the ground. The female lines the nest with fur she plucks from her belly and covers the opening with grass, making it difficult to see from above. Nests usually are placed in stands of dense grasses, but sometimes cottontails even sink their nests into well-manicured lawns.

After a 30-day pregnancy, females give birth to four or five blind, naked young. Females nurse their brood only at dawn and dusk. They spend the rest of the day feeding or resting. After about a week in the nest, the young are fully furred, and their eyes and ears open. They leave the nest after 14 days. By the age of one month the young are weaned and independent.

Meanwhile, mom has been busy. She mates shortly after giving birth, so she’s pregnant with a second brood while nursing the first. A single female might breed four or five times in a year and produce up to 35 babies. The combination of large litter size, multiple broods, and rapid growth makes cottontails prolific breeders. That’s how they can sustain heavy losses to predators and hunters.

In fact, wildlife biologists treat hunters as just another predator when determining annual season lengths and harvest limits.

Squirrels (Red, Gray and Fox) produce litters of four or five pups twice a year while conditions are good, but forgo the summer litter when nut supplies are low. But by making more babies when food is abundant, squirrel populations are resilient and relatively stable.

That’s why each fall state wildlife agencies issue mast reports that estimate the anticipated production of nuts and berries. Biologists and hunters use these projections to determine when and where to hunt squirrels. And then there are the Ring-necked Pheasants I hunted as a kid in southeastern Pennsylvania. Today, they’re essentially gone.

Habitat loss due to clean farming techniques and pheasants’ inability to survive severe winters have decimated ring-neck populations from Michigan to Pennsylvania. Back-to-back killer winters in 1977 and 1978 devastated ring-neck numbers, and in 1993 the big March blizzard delivered another death blow.

Though there are pockets of breeding pheasants here and there, and many states still have token pheasant seasons, self-sustaining populations are few here in the east.

Pennsylvania propagates ring-necks on game farms. This fall the plan is to release 100,000 birds at a cost of more than $2.7 million for fiscal year 2006-2007, according to Game Commission spokesman Jerry Feaser. This includes the cost of operating four farms, personnel and fixed assets.

Though most wildlife biologists take a dim view of an expensive stocking program that yields few birds capable of surviving the winter and ultimately nesting, the Pennsylvania Game Commission serves the people that pay the bills. It explains propagating pheasants on its Web site thusly: “We raise pheasants because people like to hunt them.”

Though I gave up small game hunting more than 30 years ago, I still enjoy the cackle of a cock bird and the zig-zag escape of a speedy cottontail.

They bring back fond memories of a boy, his dad, and a favorite dog. –Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Plug These Kids Back Into Nature

Monday, June 28th, 2010

By Bill Street
“I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” –Suburban fifth-grader

Of all the lamentations about the “good old days,” perhaps none is as regrettable as the sea change that has occurred in terms of where our children play. No longer are the sandlots, community creeks, or the tracts of woods abutting neighborhoods the places where kids wear familiar dirt paths to secret hideouts or tree forts where only the ever-changing password could get you in.

Many of our watery playgrounds have found a similar fate. Some of my most cherished childhood memories are of walking in my father’s wake, wading amid the tidal underwater grasses. Our prey: softshell crabs. For my dad, it was the thrill of the hunt, and of course, the delectable bounty at day’s end.

But for me, it was enough to be down by the river, sloshing around, delighting in a young boy’s first adventures as hunter-gatherer. Like so much else, much of those underwater grasses have since disappeared, overtaken by the murky sediment and algae that are choking the James River and the rest of Virginia’s waters.

When our mothers told us to “go outside and play,” we had plenty to choose from–and, typically, whatever we decided to do, there were any number of kids outside to do it with. Not so today. We are raising a generation of young people whose childhoods literally have been tethered to electrical outlets. Video and computer games. TiVo and YouTube. Getting together after school is more likely to be online–via MySpace or Facebook–than a place where there are trees or bugs or sunshine.

This self-imposed house arrest of our children has reached an epidemic level, and it is not without its consequences. A growing body of research is underscoring the fact that this “nature deficit-disorder”–a term coined by author Richard Louv in his seminal work, Last Child in the Woods, to describe our kids’ lack of connectedness to their natural environs–is contributing to a wide range of destructive childhood issues, including depression, attention disorders, and obesity.

Childhood obesity is but one telling byproduct of a sequestered generation. Is it any coincidence that some 25 million American children and teens are overweight–twice the number who were considered too heavy just 20 years ago?

Numbers like those have propelled a special subcommittee in the Virginia General Assembly to study the issue and make recommendations. While there has been considerable attention focused on what kids are eating in school, not enough emphasis has been placed on getting our kids outside and into nature.

Outdoor experiences also are a critical element in developing the personal connections and appreciation for nature needed to protect natural resources. As a growing population continues to place greater demands and pressure on the environment, we must also strengthen our resolve to safeguard the health of the environment.

Environmental education programs, nature centers, parks, and natural areas within our communities provide crucial opportunities today to ignite a sense of wonder in our children about the natural world.

Connecting our children to the outdoors has other compelling benefits. Schools that hold classes outside and use other forms of experiential education improve student test scores in social studies, science, language arts, and math.

One outdoor science program in California saw test scores jump 27 percent. Other studies show similar gains in improving student self-esteem, problem-solving, and motivation to learn. Research at the University of Illinois found that when students as young as five spent time in natural settings their symptoms of attention-deficit disorder were markedly reduced.

Results such as these have begun to accelerate a children-and-nature movement throughout the country. Here in Richmond, VA, parents and policymakers alike had the chance to hear first-hand how to go about reconnecting our kids to the natural world around them. Louv participated in a public forum in early November. His insights provide practical solutions for unplugging our children from videos and, like generations before them, plugging them into nature.

For the health of our environment and the health of our children, we need to make this a priority.–Times-Dispatch

Plants Can Recognize and Prefer Their Kin

Monday, June 28th, 2010

HAMILTON, ONTARIO, CANADA–The apparently passive garden plant is not as easy-going as people assume, at least not with strangers. Researchers at McMaster University have found that plants become competitive when forced to share a pot with strangers of the same species, but they are more friendly when potted with their siblings.

“The ability to recognize and favor kin is common in animals, but this is the first time it has been shown in plants,” said Dr. Susan Dudley, associate professor of biology at McMaster University in Hamilton.”When plants share their pots, they get competitive and start growing more roots, which allows them to grab water and mineral nutrients before their neighbors get them,” Dudley explains.

Biologist Susan Dudley is the first to discover that plants recognize their kin. “It appears, though, that they only do this when sharing a pot with unrelated plants; when they share a pot with family they don’t increase their root growth,” the biologist says.

Because differences between groups of strangers and groups of siblings only occurred when they shared a pot, the root interactions may provide a cue for kin recognition. Though they lack cognition and memory, Dudley says the study shows plants are capable of complex social behaviors such as altruism towards relatives.

Like humans, says Dudley, the most interesting plant behaviors occur beneath the surface.

Dudley and her student, Amanda File, observed the behavior in sea rocket, Cakile edentula, a member of the mustard family native to beaches throughout North America, including the Great Lakes, where McMaster is located near Lake Ontario.

Sea Rocket
The American sea rocket grows on sandy beaches above the high tide line. The two biologists grew batches of sea rocket in pots of four, either with specimens from the same maternal family or from several different families.Those growing with strangers had a greater mass of roots after two months of growing than those sharing pots with siblings.

Gardeners might want to use this discovery to change their plant arrangements, placing siblings close to one another.

“Gardeners have known for a long time that some pairs of species get along better than others, and scientists are starting to catch up with why that happens,” says Dudley. “What I’ve found is that plants from the same mother may be more compatible with each other than with plants of the same species that had different mothers.

“The more we know about plants, the more complex their interactions seem to be, so it may be as hard to predict the outcome as when you mix different people at a party,” she joked.

How the plants learn which neighbor is a relative is still a mystery. Dudley speculates that a protein or chemical signal specific to each plant’s family might be secreted and detected by other roots nearby.

The study was supported by a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. It appeared recently in the Royal Society journal “Biology Letters.”--ENS

Robert Bateman Is More Than A Wildlife Painter

Monday, June 28th, 2010

By Peter Worthington

His name and works are known worldwide, with one-man shows in museums across the U.S., Britain, Japan, Europe, Africa. His work is depicted on money and postage stamps, with originals in various private collections (Princes Philip and Charles, the late Princess Grace of Monaco, Prince Benhard of the Netherlands).

He is, of course, Toronto-born Robert Bateman. Museums love Bateman while art galleries tend to denigrate artists who put animals or birds in their paintings. Art is a matter of opinion. A mixture of taste, preference, mythology and hype–it must be, when the signature on a painting can increase its value from $30,000 to $50 million (e.g. Massacre of the Innocents whose value rose once Rubens was confirmed as the artist).

Bateman and his friend George McLean are in a class by themselves as wildlife artists. Neither needs a pretentious curator to interpret them, as is needed to explain what the dabs, lines and blobs of much of modern art actually mean.

There’s a lot more to Bateman than painting. He started as a school teacher, and likes to remind interviewers that he’s taught art, but not studied it. No art school background for him.

“An artist draws and paints because he has to,” he says. “It’s within him, part of his make-up. Like writing, perhaps.”

He started painting seriously when he was 14 and he quips that “I taught for fun, I painted for real.” It’s made a pretty good living for him, but he’s still the teacher, a naturalist, who knows more about nature than many who make their living from it.

He started out as an abstract and modernist painter, and learned much from the likes of Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol (“the last of the modernists”), Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Japanese calligraphists, and others. At age 32 he realized that his niche was representational art, influenced by abstractionists, modernists, cubists, whatever.

That helps him sell, but it doesn’t help get his work into the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) or the National Gallery in Ottawa, where artistic bigotry and snobbery reign. Galleries in Victoria, B.C., appreciate him, as does the Art Gallery of Hamilton (AGH) which is more open-minded to public tastes, and recently showed the work of George McLean and Chris Bacon.

Bateman likes to refer to the “high priests” or “priesthood” of the art establishment which, unlike most artists, tend to be “exclusionist” of what they disapprove, and include or accept only that which they can interpret or explain to the great unwashed public.

Bateman’s success as one of the world’s most celebrated artists hinges more on his presentation than on the details of his paintings. “In fact when someone says ‘I love your work, it’s so detailed,’ it’s almost an insult,” he says. “I want people to see the whole thing– the space, the emptiness if you like, which I learned from abstract painters.

“To concentrate on details alone, is like saying ‘I love your sweater, because it has so many stitches.’ ” He adds there are thousands of artists painting chickadees, cardinals and wolves, every feather and hair in place, which the public likes, but not all catch the imagination and add another dimension. He hopes his work goes a step further, and when it does he credits the modernists of the past.

His wife, Birgit, adds that Bateman “doesn’t tell long stories, he tells wide stories,” in that they are not narrow and precise, but wide-ranging and free-flowing.

Of course he is a conservationist, and a valued member, director or advisor of some 40 conservation organizations. A particular outrage for him is drift netting that kills unknown thousands of sea birds, fish, whales, ocean life. One of his paintings graphically depicts this, with a whale dead in the net and a seagull too, with the strands of the net barely visible across the whole painting. “To me it’s like a crucifixion,” he says.

His love for Africa is reflected in his early paintings when he was a teacher in Umuahia, Nigeria, in what was to become Biafra and a raging civil war that resulted in mass starvation and atrocities 40 years ago. The genocide in Darfur today concerns him, and he has affection for Eritrea. Outrage bubbles that a monster like Robert Mugabe could destroy a potentially wonderful, productive country like Zimbabwe.

Bateman has fought prejudice all his life–the sort of prejudice that insisted nature painters couldn’t use a small brush, but had to work with a big brush and sweeping strokes as the Group of Seven did.

Bateman recalls that someone once said “you know you’re seeing masterpiece when you see a work for the first time and it looks effortless. I hope when people see my paintings, they don’t see the effort I put into it. There’s got to be a sense of mystery too.” Maybe there’s a parallel in sports–Joe DiMaggio tracking down a fly ball make it look ludicrously easy, while lesser players look as if they are struggling to make an exceptional play. It’s that way with art too. Van Gogh’s sunflowers or starry nights look easy and deceptively simple.

A conversation with Bateman ranges all over the place. When he talks of “mystery” in painting, I’m reminded of three of his works. One is the Black Wolf, painted against a black forest background, with your perception dictated by your mood of the moment. Another is of the Mountain Goat on a precipice, which gives the viewer vertigo. The third is a Polar Bear in an Arctic blizzard. In all, the imagination runs amok.–Toronto Sun

Plant Trees For Wildlife

Monday, June 28th, 2010


By Don Mulligan
PLANTING trees is one of the best ways outdoorsmen and women can to give back to the resource they love and use.

When planted with wildlife in mind, the right trees aid in the propagation and survival of both game and nongame species.  That’s important where only remnants of forests remain.

In most of the country, it’s important to try and plant trees only in months whose names have an R in them. Trees can be planted in May and June, but they require more maintenance and are not as likely to survive.

When deciding which type of tree to plant solely to benefit wildlife, it helps to remember that wildlife trees fall into two broad categories: Food and cover. The ideal tree provides both.

Few trees provide both food and cover for wildlife, but a couple come close. Eighteen-inch DBH (diameter at breast height) or bigger blackgums are a good example of a dual role tree. 

Older blackgums often produce lots of berries. They also often  have large holes on their main stems. These large holes serve as dens for everything from birds to opossums.

Another dual role tree is the Washington hawthorne. Mature hawthornes are loaded with berries that are sought by birds, squirrels and other woodland creatures.  They also make great nesting trees since they are covered with long, pointy thorns.

But not all trees provide both food and optimal cover. Some are good for one or the other, but not both. Any large tree with a hole in it is considered a den tree. They are valuable for obvious reasons to all sorts of small creatures.

One of the arguments for not aggressively logging any woods is that the best den trees are typically the oldest trees. Old trees are naturally bigger and therefore valuable to timber companies. Anyone interested in logging their woods with wildlife still in mind, should identify the big den trees and leave them standing.

Not all logging is bad for wildlife, however. Thinning some old trees creates new growth at a level that small animals can access.  Leftover treetops also create spectacular cover for ground nesting birds and other woodland wildlife.

Large fallen tree trunks should also be left on the forest floor.  As they decay, they often hollow and create prime escape and hiding spots.

Some pines produce edible nuts, but their main function on behalf of wildlife is as cover. Planted in blocks, evergreens are unsurpassed as winter windbreaks. 

Pines, however, need to be protected from deer until they are 15-ft-tall. Their pungent and sticky sap is attractive to rutting bucks that use them to mark their territory. Aggressively rubbed pines rarely survive.

There are a variety food trees that do well in many states. Like the blackgum and the Washington hawthorne, all produce a mast crop.  Mast is the fruit of a tree or a shrub and is called either “hard” (acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts, etc.) or “soft” (fleshy fruits of dogwood, black gum, black cherry, etc.).

Persimmon trees produce a large fruit that is sought by all wildlife, especially deer and turkeys. They can be difficult to transplant, however.

A better mast tree choice is one of several varieties of apple trees. Late-bearing varieties like the Granny Smith are good for hunters who would like fruit to still be dropping when deer season rolls around.

And though they are easy to buy and transplant, apple trees require ongoing maintenance. The best producing trees are pruned annually, sprayed several times a year and are individually protected from deer and rabbits.

A better choice for year-round mast production is a combination of oak trees. Because of their different fruiting habits, landowners should plant both red and white oaks.

Acorns on trees in the red oak group mature in two years, while trees in the white oak group produce mature acorns in one season. Having both groups in one woodlot lessens the chance of a complete mast crop failure. Failures occur most often when there is a late killing frost in the spring.

Common species in the white oak group include white oak, post oak and chestnut oak. Common red oaks include northern red oak, southern red oak and black oak.

Anyone who loves the outdoors has an obligation to put something back into the wilderness they use. Planting trees is a fun and easy way to ensure the countryside remains scenic and wildlife has a place to live and eat.

Pet Owners And Bird Protectors in Cat Fight

Monday, June 28th, 2010


By Steve Grant
LATE LAST month, Joan Kloth of Southbury, CN showed up at a bird-rehabilitation clinic in Southington, CN with a cardinal and a Mourning Dove that were mauled in her yard by two of her five house cats.

Jayne Amico, who runs the clinic, told the woman that in the future, she wAdd Newouldn’t be able to care for any more injured songbirds if Kloth continued to let her cats roam outdoors. Cats should be kept indoors or in an enclosure so they won’t harm native wildlife, Amico told her.

Kloth was incensed. “Just like you need fresh air, my dogs need fresh air, my cats need fresh air,” she said. Moreover, Kloth said, she doesn’t want to clean litter boxes.

It was yet another clash between those who love cats and believe they should be allowed to roam unrestrained and those who believe outdoor cats kill too many songbirds and should be kept indoors.

Amico describes herself as an avid cat lover who became appalled at the wildlife her cats killed when she let them loose in the backyard. She now keeps them indoors or in an outdoor enclosure.

“The effect cat predation has on songbird populations is enormous,” Amico said, “and we as responsible cat owners can completely eliminate this problem with our cats by keeping them indoors.” Even without cat predation, songbird populations already are under pressure from loss of habitat, exposure to chemicals and collisions with buildings and windows, she said.

Cat lovers and bird lovers do not have to be at odds, of course, and some people count themselves in both groups. Many bird watchers own cats and keep them indoors, and some cat lovers keep their cats indoors or in enclosures to protect the birds or their cats or both.

But often the issue of cats’ preying on small birds is an emotional one that sharply divides the birders from the cat lovers. Only last month, James M. Stevenson, a birder who founded the Galveston Ornithological Society in Texas, was prosecuted on animal-cruelty charges for shooting a cat that he said was stalking Piping Plovers, an endangered shorebird species. The case ended in a mistrial.

Conflicting Rights
Many cat lovers like Kloth think their cats have a right to be outdoors unfettered.

“Hello. This is my backyard,” she said.

What there is little disagreement over is that cats do kill songbirds, in big numbers. The cardinal Kloth brought to Amico died; the dove, badly injured, is still alive. Last year, Amico took in 31 birds seriously injured by cats, including a female Wood Thrush that laid an egg three days in a row “while dreadfully wounded.”

One study by biologists and ecologists in Wisconsin estimated that “hundreds of millions” of birds are killed yearly in the U.S. just by rural roaming cats, 39 million birds in Wisconsin alone.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Department of Environmental Protection are among numerous agencies that advise cat owners to keep their pets indoors for the protection of both the pet and wildlife such as birds.

“We get people concerned about coyotes’ attacking their cats. We’re constantly saying, ‘Well, your cat doesn’t belong outside,'” said Laurie Fortin, a wildlife biologist with the state environmental agency. “People don’t like to hear it, but that is the bottom line. It is much better for the cat, and the wildlife.”

Songbirds At Risk
Fortin said agency statistics show that of 5,032 songbirds brought to animal rehab clinics in Connecticut last year, about a quarter of them, 1,333, involved cat attacks. In all likelihood, that figure is but a fraction of the actual number of cat attacks because most incidents of cats’ injuring or killing birds are never reported.

In a situation analogous to the one in Texas, cats in Milford, CN are thought to have been a factor in deaths of Piping Plover chicks on town beaches in recent decades. Piping Plovers build their nests on beaches, and their eggs and young are highly vulnerable to trampling or predation by pets such as cats and dogs.

“Your best bet is to keep it inside as an indoor cat, but especially in inappropriate areas” such as wildlife preserves, said Patrick Comins, director of bird conservation for Audubon Connecticut.

The Connecticut Humane Society, which places more than 5,000 cats each year, strongly recommends that people who adopt its cats keep them indoors. “When we educate our adopters, we talk about the real need for them to have their cats be indoor cats,” said Alicia Wright, public relations director for the society.

An indoor cat can be a happy cat if the owner remembers that cats need exercise, she said. “Part of having an indoor cat is interacting with the cat, playing with them, providing them with a lot of fun and stimulation.”

The common house cat in the U.S. is not a native species, unlike, say, the Bobcat. House cats are descended from a wild European and African species, domesticated long ago.

“Our wildlife has not evolved to cope with cat predation,” Amico said, a point echoed by wildlife biologists. By that logic, Kloth said, she shouldn’t be here either. “I’m not natural to the United States. My ancestors were brought over here. The only people natural here are the American Indians.”

Still, many thousands of pet cats are allowed to roam, Kloth’s among them. She said it would be too hard to try to keep her cats indoors while putting leashes on three dogs and opening the door. The cats would just get out anyway.

Besides household cats, there are colonies of feral cats throughout the U.S. that also contribute to bird predation. In some cases, local groups have adopted these feral colonies in which feral cats are trapped, neutered, vaccinated and returned to the outdoors. –Hartford Courant

Satellite Photos Indicate Habitat Is Dwindling Fast

Monday, June 28th, 2010

By Ben Shouse
HIGHMORE, SD—Technology and government subsidies have spawned a new era of sodbusting in central South Dakota, pitting struggling farmers against the state’s signature ecosystem and the nation’s most productive duck habitat.

Crop breeding and better machinery have helped make plowing virgin prairie more feasible in a region known as the Missouri Coteau. South Dakota, at the coteau’s southern tip, is “ground zero for this grassland loss,” according to a researcher from Ducks Unlimited, a conservation and hunting group that fears the destruction could drain much of the life from this indispensible place.

Using satellite photographs of thousands of tracts blanketing the coteau, researcher Scott Stephens of Bismarck, ND, and others have documented the loss of 88 square miles of native grassland in central South Dakota since 1984–10 percent of the area’s remaining acreage. The trend appears to be accelerating, and farmers and officials say government subsidies and new technology are responsible.

Conservationists and local ranchers want to halt the loss, while some farmers argue their new methods are good for wildlife. In the end, though, neither side may have much control over the larger economic forces that are breaking up the prairie.

“Government programs promote sodbusting at this time,” says Jim Iverson, director of the Miller office of the Farm Service Agency, the federal agency responsible for most subsidy programs. “The incentive to break up sod is that there are some price protections on the crop that they raise. There is no price protection on grass.”

Striving To Survive
New machinery and crop varieties are also making farming possible in places that were once too rocky or too dry. Rising land prices are prompting some ranchers to sell and farmers to break more of it up for crops.

“It’s getting tough out here, and people are trying to do whatever they can to stay afloat,” said Kevin Baloun, who has broken several parcels of native grass around Highmore. He said land prices and rental rates mean farmers need to increase their acreage just to maintain their incomes.

That’s what worries Jim Faulstich, a rancher who lives northeast of Baloun. His cattle graze native grasses such as big blue stem, switchgrass and Indiangrass, and resurgent native flowers such as echinacea, lead plant and scurf pea.

“If there is any one thing that I see as a threat to the environment right now, it’s the conversion of grasslands,” he said. “Once an ecosystem is torn up from conversion to farm ground, it’s gone, it’s lost.”

Sudden Rise In Farmland
The losses are mounting, according to the Ducks Unlimited study. Using satellite images, the group documented the conversion of 88 square miles of grassland in the southern tip of the Missouri Coteau. From 1984 to 2000, the rate of conversion averaged between 3 to 4 square miles per year, except for 1990 and 1991, when the rate was between 8 and 9 square miles a year. Then, around 2000, sodbusting increased, reaching 7 square miles in 2002 and 2003.

“Something changed here,” Stephens said. He hopes further research will reveal what that is, but farmers and ranchers have plenty of possible explanations: Greater farm production is possible because of drought-tolerant crop varieties, machines that remove rocks more efficiently and farm programs that support prices. Out-of-town investors and pheasant hunters are buying land here, which can raise prices.In turn, many who buy at those high prices might have to convert to crops to get the maximum return from the land. Many area ranchers are nearing retirement and might sell the land to boost their savings.

Farm Harm Disputed
Brad Baloun said he is neutral on the issue but sees why easements bother some farmers.

“It’s not that they’re anti-duck, it’s not that they’re anti-grass, it’s just that there is no longer any local control of the land,” he said. He and others argue that farming can be better for wildlife than grass, especially no-till farming. He would like to see more research on the differences between prairie and farm.

“It’s possible that these people who are doing this with Ducks Unlimited are just throwing their money away,” he said. Stephens, the Bismarck researcher, disagrees.”For any grassland-dependent wildlife, if you’re converting the chunk to cropland, that’s a bad thing,” he said.Ducks do nest on farmland, but research shows they are more likely to nest successfully on native grassland.

Conservation Rules
Science may be settling on an answer, but in the more complex, contentious world of land-use politics, discord reigns.Scaling back commodity programs might not be politically feasible.
Changing the rules for what land may receive subsidies could be difficult. But Stephens said there ought to be more serious enforcement of one such rule, known as Sodbuster.

“You can convert almost anything as long as you have a, quote, ‘conservation plan,’ and that’s pretty loosely defined,” he said. “People are signing off on whatever plans people are coming up with.” Easements and land purchases, though voluntary, are controversial.

Creating incentives
There is some agreement on other possible solutions, most of which involve reworking the funding scheme for government conservation programs. Like other subsidies, payments for the Conservation Reserve Program and the like go directly to farmers, but they encourage taking land out of production.

”Too much of the focus of previous farm bills has been on increasing production as much as possible,” said Sen. John Thune. “We’ve got to shape farm policy that becomes an incentive for conservation.”

Family farms and ranches, as much as ducks, are caught in the middle. Sometimes it comes down to a stark choice between preserving native grass and preserving profits. More producers are deciding to stay on the land by plowing more of it. And those who want to save grass agonize about whether to impose their values on others.

”I hate to say it should be mandatory, but I just wish that people would look at what they’re doing and the ecosystem they’re doing it to,” said Faulstich, who has easements on about 1,600 acres of his ranch.

If they don’t come to the same conclusion Faulstich did, the only barrier to more sodbusting is the market. Cattle prices have risen recently, which could make it easier for ranchers to hold on to their places. But Dorn Barnes, who farms near Highmore, SD said the market will keep pushing in the other direction.”I think, in 20 years, everything that can be farmed in Hyde County is going to be farmed, and only the marginal ground is going to be left for pasture.”–Argus Leader

Norman Borlaug to Receive Congressional Gold Medal

Monday, June 28th, 2010


WASHINGTON, DC
–Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norman Borlaug will receive the nation’s highest civilian honor at a ceremony in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda on July 17.

The Congressional Gold Medal will be presented to Borlaug by President George W. Bush and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. An original gold medal was created by the U.S. Mint to commemorate the honor.

Borlaug, now 93, is known as “the father of the Green Revolution” for his work in reducing world hunger. He is credited for saving more lives than any human in history. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 and remains the only person to receive that honor for work in agriculture.

The Congressional Gold Medal is Congress’ highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions. Past recipients include a wide range of people and institutions such as George Washington, Hubert Humphrey, Nelson Mandela and the American Red Cross.

In the early 1960s, Borlaug developed high yielding, disease resistant wheat plants and sent his personally trained army of hunger fighters to spread the technology to more than 20 nations.

“Through his improvement of wheat plants,” wrote the Nobel committee, “he has created a technological breakthrough which makes it possible to abolish hunger in the developing countries in the course of a few years.”

Less than a year after receiving the Nobel Prize he took on the environmental movement, warning that a ban on the pesticide DDT would cause widespread “disease and disaster” in developing countries.

“It would be helpful when you’re working on these problems to develop a skin as thick as a rhino’s hide, so you don’t feel all the darts,” Borlaug says. “Oh, there are lots of critics. If you don’t do anything you’ll never have critics.”

Borlaug earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Minnesota.

“Norman Borlaug’s work in developing high yield, disease resistant grains improved the lives of billions of people,” said Allen Levine, dean of the University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, who will represent the university at the ceremony.

“We’re very proud to have him as an alumnus of our college, and happy that Congress saw fit to recognize him in this way.”–ENS

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more on Borlaug’s career, visit: www.cfans.umn.edu/borlaug

Seattle Faces Lean Mean Growing Machine

Monday, June 28th, 2010

By Lynn Marshall
SEATTLE, WA--For the last three years, Chris LaPointe has waged war against an enemy that he believes threatens much of the Pacific Northwest, and he has recruited an army to join his side.

He needs all the help he can get. The enemy is almost supernaturally hardy: It resists poisons, can withstand extreme temperatures and can survive most efforts at cutting it to pieces.

The enemy is English ivy, a nonnative leafy vine that scientists say threatens entire forests in Washington,Oregon and British Columbia. The ivy grows and spreads so fast that it overwhelms native plants, strangles trees and shrubs, and  if it isn’t stopped  can turn a forest into an “ivy desert.”

“I know what this plant can do,” says LaPointe, an organizer for EarthCorps, a nonprofit conservationgroup in Seattle.

Since 2002, LaPointe has helped rally thousands of volunteers to remove English ivy from one of thecity’s most popular hangouts, Seward Park. His work parties, sometimes as large as 300 people, this yearhave removed about 114,000 square feet of ivy, which had devoured a large swath of the park.

It is hard work that entails pulling up the roots by hand. Thick vines are cut by saws or shears. Anycutting above the roots often results in the plant growing back. LaPointe says it can take five hours fora crew to clear an acre.

English ivy does not grow nearly as fast as kudzu, the infamously aggressive perennial vine that blankets much of the South. Kudzu grows as much as a foot a day at the height of summer and has a much thicker root structure than English ivy, but over time the effect on native vegetation is much the same.

In Seattle, where as much as 55% of the city’s forestlands are infested with English ivy, the mayor has warned that “we’re at risk of becoming the city ‘formerly known as Emerald.’ “

Officials estimate that clearing the urban forests of ivy and other nonnative plants, and restoring the land could cost as much as $20,000 per acre, which would amount to a hefty bill to tackle just the 2,500 acresdeemed most at risk. But the alternative isn’t pretty.

“Thirty years from now, there won’t be any forest left [in the city] if we don’t do something about it,” says Mark Mead, a forester with the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department.

English ivy, also known as Hedera helix, is an evergreen vine with green pointed leaves marked withwhite veins. If allowed to mature, the vine produces white-green flowers in the fall. In the spring, theflowers bear fruit, which is spread by birds.

The ivy is native to Europe, western Asia and North Africa, and is believed to have come to the UnitedStates with European immigrants. For decades it was popular as a landscaping plant, and many gardeners andlandscapers still use it for that purpose.

“This ivy used to be regarded as a great landscape solution” because of its fast growth and evencoverage, says Jeanne McNeil, executive director of the Washington State Nursery and Landscape Assn. “Itstill can be, if it is kept contained, and not allowed to mature.”

The Oregon Department of Agriculture placed four types of H. helix on the state’s quarantine list in 2002, banning their sale and importation.

“There was a lot of concern about the damage the ivy was doing, particularly out of the Portland metroarea,” says Tim Butler, manager of the department’s noxious weed program. He says the quarantine has beeneffective.

In Washington, English ivy is classified as a class-C noxious weed, which means that individual counties may take steps to eradicate the plant. But state officials have been resistant to the idea of quarantine.

Mary Toohey, assistant director of the state Agriculture Department, says that such a measure wouldhave little effect. Toohey says educating the public is the best way to combat the spread of English ivy. In addition, shesays, volunteer groups such as EarthCorps have been effective in clearing areas of the plant.

The Washington State Native Plant Society maintains a list of ivy-free Nurseries as part of its Ivy Out campaign, and this year the Washington State Nursery and Landscape Assn. started a program asking some members to stop selling H. helix and to educate people on alternatives.

One nursery that had no problem joining the effort was Swanson’s Nursery, which has been operating in Seattle for 82 years.

“We had actually already stopped selling the invasive ivy cultivars a few years back,” says Gordon White, a buyer for Swanson’s. White says an increasing number of people in Seattle are becoming aware of the problem.

Mead, the Seattle forester, calls English ivy a ‘gateway plant.’ “English ivy isn’t the whole story,” Mead says. “We have to get the other ‘invasives’ out as well andrestore the forests. But the ivy gives us a focus to get people involved, and that’s how we’ll solve theproblem.”

Federal agencies spend about $1 billion a year on the management of invasive species, according to a federal report issued this year. The report, from the Government Accountability Office, calls the spread of invasive species “an explosion in slow motion” with weeds now covering an estimated 133 million acres nationwide. There are no overall federal controls for invasive weeds. States are left on their own to classify anddeal with such plants, and there is little uniformity in the regulations.

Horticulture groups say English ivy has spread to at least 26 states, including California, but the planthas not been recognized as threatening in all of those areas. California lists 236 plants as noxious; H.helix is not one of them.

Back in Seattle’s Seward Park, LaPointe, the EarthCorps organizer, says that when his volunteergroups started working in the park in 2002, the goal was to be rid of the ivy by the end of 2003.

Here it is, almost 2006, he says, and “we’re still working on it.” –Los Angeles Times

New Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants Book

Monday, June 28th, 2010

WITH THE LANDMARK release of Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants, Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG) presents the first-ever double issue in the acclaimed All Region Guide series.

In 1996, BBG published the groundbreaking handbook Invasive Plants: Weeds of the Global Garden—the first comprehensive publication to identify North America’s worst invasive plants—and for years readers have asked for a companion volume featuring ecologically safe alternatives.

This special double volume educates gardeners not only about the threat of invasive species but also about the variety of native plants that are beautiful, regionally characteristic, and fulfill the same needs as their nonnative counterparts commonly used in horticulture.

By selecting regional natives, gardeners can help to preserve the natural character of their region as well as the complex interrelationships between native plants and the butterflies, birds, and myriad other creatures with which they have coevolved. This All-Region Guide defines what an invasive plant is and makes it easy for the reader to select an environmentally appropriate alternative.

Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants is an indispensable guide for everyone who loves dazzling gardens and cares about the health of North America’s natural landscapes. Invasive plants, the overwhelming majority of which are not regionally native, brazenly spread unchecked across residential landscapes, parks, preserves, roadsides, and other wild lands, supplanting native species and ultimately threatening the ancient biological communities in their path.

In fact, most scientists now consider invasive species to be one of the top two threats to this planet’s native plants and animals (the other is habitat loss). Invasive species cause major environmental damage amounting to almost $120 billion a year.

Yet invasive plants are still commercially available, and a few of them remain wildly popular. Japanese barberry, for example, is one of the hottest-selling plants in the nursery trade, and Norway maple is one of the most widely planted trees in the country.

In the Garden’s newest handbook, plant professionals and home gardeners alike will discover hundreds of spectacular native plants for every region, specially chosen as alternatives to the invasive species that are degrading the continent’s natural habitats. These beautiful wildflowers, shrubs, and trees not only serve as alternatives to invasive plants but also offer food for butterflies, birds, and other wildlife.

The book features an indispensable encyclopedia of native alternatives to invasive plants that is conveniently organized by horticultural plant group: trees, shrubs, vines, herbaceous plants, and grasses.

For each invasive species, one to four regional natives are profiled, including a full-color photographs, ornamental attributes and uses, related species, and growing tips, along with a list of additional alternatives, provided on Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s website at bbg.org/nativealternatives.

Ideally the native alternative matches all or most of the invasive plant’s desirable characteristics, such as flowers and bloom time, foliage, fruit, form, texture, color, hardiness and ease of care.

See Sea Shore’s Wild Side

Monday, June 28th, 2010

By Scott Shalaway
IF YOU are heading to the East Coast for vacation, try getting to know the shore’s wild side. Begin with a look at the physical environment.

Take the wind, for example. It shapes the seashore, even on still days. Ocean winds that may originate thousands of miles away propel the waves that beat rhythmically and incessantly upon the beach. To live in the surf zone, creatures must anchor themselves to the bottom, swim strongly or float aimlessly.

Coastal breezes can make or break a week at the beach. Sea breezes moderate temperatures under a blazing sun and keep coastal temperatures about 10 degrees cooler than just a few miles inland. But land breezes blowing out to sea bring deer flies, horse flies and biting green heads. On a bad day, relief is found only back at the house or under the protection of towels, hats and insect repellent.

Another physical feature that dominates every seascape is the tide. Powered largely by the gravitational pull of the moon, tides peak and ebb twice each day. But the rhythm of the tides is not constant from day to day. In fact, the schedule advances 50 minutes each day, due to the rate at which the moon orbits the earth. Yet, as surely as the sun rises each morning and waves pound the beach, so do the tides rise and fall.

Within this dynamic world of wind, waves and tides live myriad species of wondrously adapted plants and animals. Some, such as laughing gulls and horse flies, are obvious and sometimes annoying. But most are inconspicuous and must be searched out.

Visit the beach at sunrise. There are always a handful of early risers who gather to watch the sun rise. But because the horizon is so precise on the coast, the sun makes a surprisingly hasty entrance.

At home, the ragged tree line gives sunrise a leisurely feel. At the beach, though, it almost seems to pop instantly above the horizon. Turn your head for an instant, and you might actually miss it. And the colors of the morning sky are as stunning as a glorious sunset.

Horseshoe crabs invade sandy beaches in mid-May to lay eggs, but any gathering of youths at the water’s edge usually means one has made a late appearance. These harmless crustaceans have roamed the seashores for millions of years, and their eggs sustain the millions of shorebirds that move up the East Coast every spring.

Among my favorite beach crustaceans are small egg-shaped critters that seem to vanish from the sand without a trace. They are Mole Crabs, ghostly creatures that appear and disappear in the blink of an eye as they burrow into the wet sand. Watch for them while building sand castles.

Speaking of apparitions, if you get to the beach before dawn, you may glimpse a Ghost Crab dart across the sand to its burrow. Colored to match the sand they live on, Ghost Crabs blend into the beach when they stop moving.

And no description of the ocean would be complete without mention of jellyfish and clams. Nothing can ruin a day at the beach faster than an influx of jellyfish from a storm the previous night. Their stinging tentacles cause an itchy rash that can last for several hours. In open water, these stinging tentacles paralyze small fish and other prey that wander within their reach.

To find live clams, on the other hand, just dig beneath the small holes that dot the sand at the water’s edge. The holes are the tips of syphon tubes through which flows the oxygen-rich, food-rich water that sustain the clams. With any luck, you’ll find such wonderfully named species as Quahogs, Coquinas, Razors and Jackknives.

And if you’ve been living right, you may glance out at the horizon and see a school of dolphins frolicking just off shore. Add a flock of Brown Pelicans, which I was lucky to see at the New Jersey shore last week, and you’ll be tempted to think you’ve arrived in Margaritaville.–Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Nature–Is The Best Gift!

Monday, June 28th, 2010

By Tom Patrick
NO PLACE to park.  Huge crowds of pushing and shoving people.  Traffic is a nightmare.

If you are happy dealing with these conditions–good for you.  But, they aren’t my cup of tea.  I do my Christmas shopping on the Internet on websites I can trust such as WindStar Wildlife Institute’s Nature Shop where all proceeds go to support WindStar’s Environmental Education Programs–not overhead.

I happen to think the “Mad Bluebird” made by photographer Michael Smith is one of the best nature photos ever.  So we have made a number of products available to you featuring this expressive bird:

  • 11 oz. mugs that are microwave-safe
  • Memo padsGarden Flags, two sizes
  • Framed and unframed prints ranging from 5×7 to 16×20
  • Thermal travel mugs
  • Coasters
  • Magnets

In addition, we offer Michael’s Smith’s Osprey, owl and other bird photos in a variety of sizes.  And we have…

  • Individual and family Memberships in WindStar Wildlife Institute
  • Certified Wildlife Habitat Naturalist e-learning course
  • Certified National Master Naturalist e-learning course
  • Certify your own wildlife habitat
  • Other colorful garden flags
  • Complete line of metal mesh bird feeders

Click on the new WindStar Apparel Store for beautiful, embroidered, high quality clothing with the WindStar Logo. Currently we have polo, twill, denim and cotton shirts; caps; jackets; tote bags; vests; and T-shirts.

Thanks to a seemingly endless supply of new books and gadgets, giving gifts to wildlife watchers gets easier every year. Here are some suggestions from Scott Shalaway:

  • “The Songs of Wild Birds” by Lang Elliot (2006, Houghton Mifflin, $19.95) is a book/CD combination. Elliot covers 50 favorite birds, each illustrated with a gorgeous photograph and discussed in a one-page essay. The CD features the voice of all 50 species, including the ivory-billed woodpecker.
  • Unsafe Harbor” (2006, Avon, $6.99) is Jessica Speart’s 10th wildlife mystery thriller featuring intrepid U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Agent Rachel Porter. This time Porter is back in her native New York battling wildlife crimes in Port Elizabeth, N.J. I love these books because they’re great reads, and I always find something new about wildlife law enforcement.
  • “Letters from Eden: A Year at Home, in the Woods” by Julie Zickafoose (2006, Houghton Mifflin, $26) is a collection of illustrated essays that describes the natural world that lies just beyond the author’s doorstep. What makes this book particularly appealing is that Zickafoose provides the words and the artwork.
  • Ten years after Roger Tory Peterson’s death, “All Things Reconsidered: My Birding Adventures” (2006, Houghton Mifflin, $30.00), assembles 42 of his columns from BirdWatcher’s Digest. Each essay is illustrated with his own photographs. I can’t imagine a better way to get to know the father of American birdwatching.

    After oil, coffee is the most traded commodity on earth. That’s why it’s important to growers, traders, wholesalers, retailers, environmentalists and birders. “Birdsong & Coffee: A Wakeup Call” (2006, $30.00, DVD, www.olddogdocumentaries.com) explains the economic and environmental implications of the coffee industry. Then perhaps you’ll be inspired to switch to shade-grown coffee, which is available at many wild bird stores and nature centers.

    “An Inconvenient Truth: A Global Warning” (2006, DVD now in stores; $29.99) is Al Gore’s take on global warming. Regardless of your political bent, this documentary pulls together a body of information that everyone should hear.

    If you’re looking for something lighter and bit more entertaining, “Hoot” and “Duma” are two PG-rated films. “Hoot” (DVD, $19.98) tells the story of a group of kids determined to save a local population of burrowing owls. “Duma” (DVD, $14.98), set in South Africa, is the tale of a 12-year-old boy’s determination to return a captive-reared cheetah to the wild.

    Many state wildlife agencies sell calendars, embroidered patches, magazines, videos, artwork and conservation stamps, but curiously, finding these items on agency Web sites can be a challenge. The best and most user-friendly agency Web site I’ve found is the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s, www.pgc.state.pa.us.gov. Just click on “The Outdoor Shop.”

    Celestron’s SkyScout ($398, www.celestron.com/skyscout) is a bit pricey for my budget, but it seems the ultimate gadget for star gazers. I’ve never recommended something I haven’t used, but the SkyScout sounds too good to ignore. Basically, you find a star, planet or constellation in the viewfinder, press a button, and the SkyScout identifies the object. The Celestron Web site indicates that demand is high, so delivery by Christmas may be a problem.

    Finally, if you’ve been thinking about switching to a digital camera, “Digital Nature Photography, From Capture to Output” ($29.95, McDonald Wildlife Photography, Inc., 73 Loht Road, McClure, Pa. 17841, 717- 543-6423; www.hoothollow.com), is a book on a CD that addresses virtually everything you need to know to use digital imagery.

    Written by two professional wildlife photographers, Joe and Mary Ann McDonald, and an Adobe certified expert, Rick Holt, this book describes in easy to understand terms all facets of digital photography.

    The text is written on a CD in a PDF format, readable by any computer, and can be easily downloaded onto your laptop. For a hard copy, the book can also be printed from any home computer printer, or from any office supply store.

Native Plants Hold Key To Our Survival

Monday, June 28th, 2010

By Lillie Dorchak
I JUST PASSED a landscape crew cleaning up understory brush under a row of old pine trees at the edge of an empty residential lot on my road. New house coming. My mind said “There’s another habitat gone!”

All around us, natural places are being consumed by “development.” Here on Minneakoning Road in Raritan Township (NJ) where the newsroom is situated, developers of big box stores have been tearing away at the buffers on the old fairgrounds property, displacing wildlife that I enjoy watching: families of rabbits and groundhogs, bluebirds that nested at the buffer line, and who knows what else. Sad, but more than that, it’s a trend that may bite us back in the future. News about global warming has been depressing enough over the past decade, but it isn’t the only issue to be anxious about, if we want a future that isn’t drastically different from the present.

At the meeting of the Master Gardeners of Somerset and Hunterdon Counties recently, we all got a jolt from the speaker who came all the way from the University of Delaware to tell us about the loss of biodiversity on the planet.

Doug Tallamy is chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology and he had a strong message to pass on: Saving biodiversity, and ourselves, is within the reach of every person with a garden, a plot of land or a vast estate.

We may be losing 100 species of birds a day due to the removal of forests in Brazil, here at home and across the globe. But understanding why that is so and how it will ultimately affect us needs some explanation. In short, we are breaking the fragile web of life.

Here’s the process. We all know we’re at the top of the food chain, consuming plants and animals, but what’s at the bottom of the chain?

Plants
Plants are the gatherers of the sun’s wonderful energy. Plants grow and in the process provide oxygen for every living thing. The plants also directly feed the next vital link in the chain, insects. Thousands of species of insects that eat plants in turn feed birds and their nestlings, reptiles and other animal life. We, at the top, survive on the levels bellow us. It’s a house of cards ready to fall if balance isn’t maintained.

“We haven’t shared the planet well with plants and animals. If they die, our support system dies too. The plants and animals aren’t optional; they provide air and clean water, create soil, buffer weather, recycle garbage and sequester carbon. Without all this, the ecosystem fails,” said Dr. Tallamy.

How gardeners and landowners can help keep balance locally is simple: plant native trees, shrubs and flowers instead of, or along with alien, exotic species in our yards and landscape. According to Dr. Tallamy, modern suburban landscapes, the places you and I live in, do not sustain our native insects and birds. How many of us have seen a wood thrush or brown towhee lately? Attribute that to the neat American lawn and our overall desire for clean lines and neat edges in the landscape. Thrushes like shrubby borders, understory plants and wood edges where cover is plentiful, in short, a natural, untamed habitat.

To grow a caterpillar of any specific species, you need native plants that the insects have evolved to digest for food. Plants from China or South Africa cannot fulfill this need because of varying plant chemicals. It’s like expecting a carnivore like a cat to live on vegetables alone, it doesn’t work.

Our most treasured butterflies and moths, which provide food for nestling birds, are “specialists,” needing a specific plant. When we fill our gardens with exotics, the space for growing plants they need is gone. When housing developments remove wildflowers, or cover over wetlands, valuable sustaining plants are gone along with the species of animals they support.

Here’s some startling numbers from Dr. Tallamy’s research. About 54% of the continental U.S. is covered with towns and cities. Another 41% is in agriculture. The remaining 5% is all that remains of natural, undisturbed wild places with intact systems of native plants. What is far more uprooting than those numbers is that the loss of natural ecosystems of plants and animals is matched by the same percentage of species loss, i.e., 50% loss of natural lands will show a 50% diminution of native plants and animals.

Dr. Tallamy wasn’t pessimistic about the future because he’s seen simple efforts to replant native species turn around the downward spiral. He believes if we can re-connect islands of biodiversity to each other by reforesting and planting natives, particularly in suburbia, there’s a chance more birds and insects will survive to repopulate. If we reduce lawn acreage and plant friendly landscapes of natives on our homegrounds, we can restore balance. Even on small lots, native shrubs can close in to buffer our yards from neighbors and invite wildlife to reproduce and live.

Here’s why planting natives can achieve a good turnaround for nature dramatically: native oak trees support 534 butterfly/moth species and willow and black cherry nearly as good, 455 species. Goldenrod will encourage 115 butterflies, asters, 112. Woody plants, you will also note, help out many more species than perennial wildflowers.

So, if you enjoy the croak of frogs, the song of birds and the flutter of butterflies, plant our native dogwood for its valuable berries on which birds thrive; don’t eradicate violets from your spring lawn, they are the only food for fritillary butterflies; let leaves fall and decompose as valuable duff for insects and wildflowers; grow a black cherry tree and welcome the tiger swallowtail butterfly. Build a balanced community, because Nature is what you make it!  –Hunterdon County Democrat

EDITOR’S NOTE: To get a more detailed and enlightening revelation on this topic, read Dr. Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home, which will be released by Timber Press on Dec. 15. Visit timberpress.com or call (800) 327-5680 to order a copy.

Seeing Isn’t Necessarily Believing

Monday, June 28th, 2010

By Scott Shalaway
INFORMATION is power. That, in a nutshell, explains the success of the Internet. Details on just about any subject can be accessed in minutes.

Unfortunately, not everything on the Internet is true. Anyone can host and post just about anything, regardless of its accuracy, and bogus e-mails may outnumber legitimate ones. So readers, beware. Question all sources. If something sounds too amazing to be true, it probably is.

Even nature lovers can be snookered by Internet misinformation. Almost daily, I receive e-mails from friends, relatives and readers with amazing stories and photos that simply defy belief.

A Pittsburgh reader recently wrote that a friend of his brother took some photos of a Mountain Lion the porch of a cabin near Seven Springs. He asked if I’d take a look at the photos. But first, I sent him some photos with a similar back story. He replied almost immediately: “Those are the exact photos that were sent to my brother, so it appears to be a hoax.”

Here are some other classic examples of outrageous e-mails that I’ve received over the last few years:

  • One from 2001 depicts a Great White Shark menacing a navy diver hanging on a ladder suspended from a hovering helicopter. The caption describes the scene as “a real photo taken near the South African coast during a military exercise by the British Navy.”

A Web site that debunks myths and legends, www.snopes.com, reports that, in fact, the image is a composite of two real, but unrelated images: a picture of a Great White Shark taken by a South African photographer and an Air Force photo of a helicopter from a California National Guard unit, with San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge in the background.

  • Another terrifying shark photo appeared in 2003. It shows a surfer paddling into a wave in which the shadowy form of a huge shark appears. It turned out that the photo is real, but the creature was a dolphin, not a shark.
  • In May 2005, I began receiving copies of a monstrous “50-pound, 8-ft-long rattlesnake caught in Clay County, WV.” In October, I received the same photos, this time describing it as a Timber Rattler captured in Potter County, PA. Having lived in both Arizona and Oklahoma back in the 1970s and 1980s,

I knew immediately this was hoax. The snake was obviously a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, which does not occur east of the Mississippi River. Prominent black and white bands on the tail make western diamondbacks easy to identify. Snopes.com describes the snake as being 11 pounds, six ft. long and taken in Texas.

  • The most egregious example of Internet nature fraud first appeared in my e-mail box last spring, and it’s been forwarded to me many times since. It was entitled, “Rebirth of the Eagle.” I hesitate mentioning this for fear of giving the tale credibility, but I’m hoping knowledge trumps ignorance. This hoax claims that when a Bald Eagle reaches the age of 30, it retreats to a mountaintop and over a five-month period, plucks its talons and feathers and knocks off its bill by slamming it against a rock. These body parts then grow back, and the bird lives another 30 years. What folly! Eagles can live as long as 30 years. They simply cannot survive months of starvation without a beak and talons. I can’t even imagine the origins of such a ridiculous story.

Unfortunately hoaxes and rumors are not confined to the Internet. West Virginia and Pennsylvania, for example, are perpetually plagued by rumors that state wildlife agencies introduced Coyotes to control the deer herd. That’s absolutely false. Coyotes have been expanding their range naturally for at least 50 years.

And every year I hear from West Virginia hunters who complain that, “a friend of my brother-in-law’s boss” saw rattlesnakes being dropped from a helicopter. The explanation is that rattlers control the turkey populations. Again, this is pure bunk spread by people with too much free time.–Pittsburgh Post Gazette

EDITOR’S NOTE:To see more wild tales confirmed or debunked, visit www.snopes.com/photos/animals.

Mystery Killer Silencing Honeybees

Monday, June 28th, 2010

By Sandy Bauers
SOMETHING is killing the nation’s honeybees. If the die-off continues, it would be disastrous for U.S. crop yields.

Dave Hackenberg of central Pennsylvania had 3,000 hives and figures he has lost all but about 800 of them. In labs at Pennsylvania State University, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, and elsewhere in the nation, researchers have been stunned by the number of calls about the mysterious losses.

“Every day, you hear of another operator,” said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, acting state apiarist with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. “It’s just causing so much death so quickly that it’s startling.”

At stake is the work the honeybees do, pollinating more than $15 billion worth of U.S. crops, including Pennsylvania’s apple harvest, the fourth-largest in the nation, worth $45 million, and New Jersey’s cranberries and blueberries.

While a few crops, such as corn and wheat, are pollinated by the wind, most need bees. Without these insects, crop yields would fall dramatically. Agronomists estimate Americans owe one in three bites of food to bees.

The problem caps 20 years of honeybee woes, including two mites that killed the valuable insect and a predatory beetle that attacked the honeycombs of weak or dead colonies.

“This is by far the most alarming,” said Maryann Frazier, an apiculture – or beekeeping – expert at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

One of the first to notice the latest die-off was Hackenberg, who lives in Lewisburg, north of Harrisburg in Union County. He and his son truck about 3,000 hives up and down the East Coast every year as part of a large but little-known cross-continental migratory bee industry.

Hackenberg’s bees pollinate oranges in Florida, apples, cherries and pumpkins in Pennsylvania, and blueberries in Maine. Come summer, they are buzzing along the Canadian border, making honey.

This season, Hackenberg hauled his hives to Florida by Oct. 10, just as he has done for 40 years. By November, some hives were empty; others had just sickly remains. He made some calls and found out a beekeeper in Georgia had seen the same thing.

Since then, with concern mounting, experts have been investigating. A few months ago, they were referring to the die-off as “fall dwindle disease.” Now, they have ratcheted up to “colony collapse disorder.”

Last weekend, apiarist vanEngelsdorp and other researchers headed to central California, where hundreds of acres of almond trees – the source of 80 percent of the world’s almond harvest – are about to blossom.

Last fall, workers transported managed hives–about 450 per tractor-trailer–to California from colder areas such as the Great Lakes and the Dakotas. Now, hives are coming from Texas, Florida, Maryland and Pennsylvania. In all, about half the country’s managed hives are needed for the mass pollination.

As workers open the hives to check them, “the picture’s not so good,” said Jeffrey S. Pettis, a leader in bee research at a U.S. Department of Agriculture lab in Beltsville, Md. Pettis said bees often had some winter loss, but this level of death was unprecedented. As dead or dying insects are collected, dissected and tested, several possibilities are emerging.The most recent mite problem–the varroa mite–compromises a bee’s immune system, so a virus might be the new culprit, Frazier said. Or it could be a new fungal pathogen.

Frazier said researchers also were looking at a new group of pesticides that might impair the bees’ ability to orient to their hives. So maybe they are dying only because they cannot find their way back home.

Honeybees are not natives. The country already had about 3,500 species of pollinating bees before Europeans brought honeybees in the 1600s. But because honeybees produce honey and can be managed so easily, they have become a mainstay of U.S. agriculture.

“Part of the problem is that today we develop these big monocultures of corn or peas or cabbage,” Frazier said. “They wipe out the diversity of nectar sources and reduce nesting sites for wild bees. And we use, unfortunately, a lot of pesticides to keep the insects we don’t want from eating these crops, which also works to eliminate the pollinators.”

So a Pennsylvania orchard manager, say, will bring in bees for the two weeks the apple trees bloom, then take them out so he can apply substances to control other insects. Neither entomologists nor growers can say what will happen when the 2007 growing season for most of the country’s crops starts. “We’re coming up onto the season where people are really going to be worried,” Frazier said.

Although research suggests the stress of moving bees long distances might be a factor in the die-offs, smaller beekeepers with stationary hives worry the problem will extend to their colonies as well. Already, Janet Katz, a beekeeper in Chester, N.J., thinks three of her 21 hives are failing.

And the bees are stressed already, she said. “The weather last season was not cooperative,” she said. “Over the course of the season it was too wet, too dry, too hot and too cold, all at the wrong times.” Bees store honey every autumn–a hive needs 60 pounds to survive the winter–but with this year’s warm weather, they ate a lot, and beekeepers had to supplement with sugar syrup. Now, the bees have sealed themselves inside the hives to stay warm, and the keepers can’t open the structures until spring.

“Are we going to see this same thing, this collapsing disorder, in these bees? We don’t know,” Frazier said. “It’s very possible this may extend to our nonmigratory population. We just won’t know until spring.”–Philadelphia Inquirer

Snakes In The Living Room Trumps Wildlife In The Yard

Monday, June 28th, 2010

“Look before you leap, for snakes among sweet flowers do creep” –German proverb

By Leslie Criss
TUPELO, MS–I’m a city girl. Don’t get me wrong. I love visiting the country. But I prefer leaving it–and its wildlife–behind for life in the city.

So, here’s my question: Couldn’t there be a rule relegating certain members of the wildlife community to the country?

I’ve already survived a rat and her offspring in the shed behind my house. And I understand rodents, like me, seem to prefer life in the city. But now I have a opossum that has taken up residence on the uncleared lot just beyond my yard. In the daylight hours, the marauding marsupial makes its way under my fence and under my shed.

The opossum’s presence pushes my puppies into a pandemonium that involves a lot of barking. At least twice their vocals have caused one neighbor to admonish them from his upstairs window. Of course, my response to the neighbor is, “They’re dogs. Dogs bark.”

I requested a trap–the no-kill kind–be set out back in hopes the opossum could be caught and carried home to the country. But I don’t think the trap ever made it to Madison Street.

My friend William at the Journal asked me if he could come sit on my deck with his pellet gun and see how many bottles he could hit on my bottle tree. I told him no, but he could take out some of the squirrels. (Just kidding; don’t call PETA.)

I think they’re cute, but there has been a population explosion of them in my neighborhood. When I drive into my driveway, there are always two or three slow-moving squirrels leading me into the backyard before they scurry up a tree.

Several Saturdays ago as I walked out on my deck I noticed movement in my yard. Something was lumbering away from me toward the back fence.

Then George and Gracie saw it and took off after it. The thing didn’t pick up much speed. It tried–and failed–to squirm under the side fence. Finally, it escaped my yard by way of the back fence. But not before Gracie got a mouthful of fur.

What was it?

I can only tell you what it wasn’t. It was not a rat or nutria or any sort of rodent. It was not a opossum or raccoon. It was not a cat or a rabbit. There was no visible tail, it was a solid grayish-brown color and it made no sound. The body looked Beaver-ish, but without that large, dam-building tail.

Muskrat? Groundhog? Your guess is as good as mine. But I’d just as soon not have all manner of wildlife in my backyard. George, Gracie, the birds and a few squirrels is all I need.

Now, I have a friend in Vicksburg who called me a week ago to let me know she has “at least” four snakes in her house. Not out in the yard. IN THE HOUSE!

I told her when next I visit, I won’t be staying with her.

But, her news made me ponder anew my own situation. And I’m finding a fondness for my furry, four-legged friends in my yard. Better many mammals in the yard than even a single serpent inside.–Daily Journal’s

Mother Nature Has Many Fields of Study For Citizen Scientists

Monday, June 28th, 2010

By Candace Page and Adam Silverman
ADDISON, VT–Claire Trombley, 12, of Starksboro, VT, climbed out of bed at 5 one recent October morning and was at her station by sunrise.

Within three hours she had helped attach aluminum leg bands to 67 tiny songbirds trapped in fine mesh nets on the banks of marshy Dead Creek. Around her, other banders and their helpers opened soft cloth bags holding the birds and recorded species name, sex, age, weight and wingspan on large grid-ruled sheets.

The amateur naturalists of the Dead Creek Bird Observatory are among a growing group of “citizen scientists” across the U.S. who help professional researchers unravel mysteries of the natural world while enjoying a closer connection to nature.

Quantifying the number of citizen scientists is difficult because the pursuit is so grass-roots, said Sandra Henderson, director of citizen science at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, CO. But, she says, the number is large and growing.

“There are millions if you use the broadest definition,” she said. “It’s everything from school kids collecting data to interested laypeople.”

The pursuit is gaining popularity, now, in large part, because of the Internet and its ability to provide instant interaction and immediate results, said John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, NY. As amateurs and the researchers they assist realize the potential, and people see that their contributions matter, Fitzpatrick said, the partnership is poised to explode.

“Opportunities for citizens to supply data are limitless,” he said. “We have the capacity to be measuring the pulse of biological systems worldwide in real time,” he said. “Never before were humans able to do this.”

Citizen scientists count birds, chase butterflies, test water quality, observe the behavior of loons and falcons, follow the tracks of bobcat, bear and moose, and perform countless other tasks. As they document their observations, they build a body of scientific data no single researcher could collect in a lifetime, Fitzpatrick said.

Much of their information is fed to national databases, including systems maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Cornell lab. “Citizen scientists are so incredibly valuable because you can marshal an army of them. They do the work at the ground level,” said Chris Rimmer, director of the Vermont Center for EcoStudies in Norwich, VT, which works with more than a thousand volunteers to answer research questions. “The information they collect can then be used in a very powerful way to achieve conservation goals.”

One of the earliest examples of organized citizen science began in 1900, when an ornithologist suggested counting birds instead of shooting them in traditional holiday hunts. Thus was born the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which has continued uninterrupted for 107 years. The project has produced tangible results, said Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society in Washington.

Audubon announced this year that populations of dozens of common bird species—including Bobwhites, Meadowlarks, hummingbirds and the Vermont state bird, the Hermit Thrush—have seen dramatic population decreases during the past 40 years, in some cases up to 80%.

The report’s underpinning was four decades of Christmas Bird Count data, without which the conclusions might never have been reached, Butcher said.

Last year, about 55,000 volunteers in all 50 states, plus Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America, took part in the count, and each year has seen more participants than the last, Butcher said. Cornell University counts 100,000 volunteers who submit 50,000 reports each month to the ornithology lab, Fitzpatrick said.

Such widespread involvement makes the research possible, Butcher said.

“Nobody could afford to pay people to go out and get that information,” he said. “A lot of them don’t believe it has anything to do with science whatsoever. They like seeing birds and hanging out with their friends.”

In that way, citizen scientists say, they enrich their time outdoors.

“Tracking really does open up your eyes to the natural environment,” said Auriel Gray of Burlington, VT, who monitors wildlife along a 2-mile route in Greensboro. “We see so much more now.” –USA Today