Thursday, February 28, 2008

Sugar maples in sunshine; how sweet it is...

Steam rising from a sugar shack is a harbinger of spring, and a sweet celebration of the end of winter. Throughout Ohio's Beech-Maple forests sugar maple sap rises with the morning sun during February and March, when cold night temperatures rise above freezing during daytime.

The Camp Lazarus Sugar Shack.

American beech (Fagus grandifolia), with smooth gray bark, and sugar maple (Acer saccharum), with the red marker and sap bucket, both common on Camp Lazarus uplands, are indicators of Beech-Maple Forest.

The clangor of sugar maple sap dripping from tap-hole spiles into galvanized buckets, and the laughter and grins of hundreds of youngsters, announce the annual Sugar Maple Festival at venerable Camp Lazarus, in Delaware County, Ohio, just north of Winter Road along the west side of U.S. Route 23.

During the last weekend of February, through the first weekend of March, Boy Scouts of America volunteers, friends, families, visitors and community organizations join to celebrate the season and to introduce youth to the history and ecology of sugarbush at Camp Lazarus.

A three-tap sugar maple; about 150 years old, I'd say.

Professionals with Preservation Parks of Delaware County, and volunteers with The Boy Scouts of America, partnered to offer fun and environmental education for students and parents with the Sunbury Home School Educators, February 28.

Camp Lazarus sugar-makers Carl Russel, Bob Locci, and Bob Huddler invited youngsters into the sugar shack for a rare treat, the smell of wood smoke and sweet steam rising from the evaporator.

Camp Lazarus Boy Scouts of America volunteers introduce the sap evaporator.

Warmth and glow. The evaporator's hearth boils sap to syrup; its warmth and glow warms sugar-makers and youth from sole to Soul.

Preservation Parks' environmental educators; Jackie Brown, Education Coordinator, and Kim Banks, Naturalist, introduced the youngsters and their parents to the history of sugar-making, and the science of trees through the seasons. Your blogger volunteered as photographer and gopher for the morning.

Camp Lazarus is a high quality green space and watershed reserve amidst pervasive commercial development and suburbanization northward from Columbus, Ohio. The camp is a product of partnership, too. Preservation Parks of Delaware County purchased a conservation easement on Camp Lazarus to assure protections for quality watershed. The sale of the easement assured that B.S.A.'s Simon Kenton Council retains ownership of the camp, and preserves opportunities for youth, an 85-year tradition at Camp Lazarus. Today, comprehensive outdoor programing is offered through B.S.A. almost daily, and by Preservation Parks regularly.

Sugarbush--the manufacture of sugar products from tree sap, is a long tradition at Camp Lazarus. The Lazarus family (Lazarus Department Stores) donated the camp to B.S.A. in the mid-1920's when trees were already annually tapped on the property.

A sugar maple "tree cookie" saved from a harvested tree on Camp Lazarus preserves at least 101 years of tap scars within its 198 years of tree-rings. A "spile" is seen at upper right. Spiles are tapped into shallow drilled holes waist-high on trees to direct sap into buckets. Modern efficient sugarbush operations often use plastic bags, or even tubing to collect sap.

A walk through tapped trees, and a visit to the sugar shack made youngsters a part of the process. Next, off to the nature center for energetic introduction to energy flow through tree ecosystems, offered at appropriate depth, by naturalist Jackie Brown. Youngsters explored the nature center and checked-out sugar making equipment. They explored the history of sugarbush and the family economy of early pioneers gathering late winter calories from trees. Boys and girls tried-out a bucket yoke, carrying gallon jugs of water around to experience the kinds of chores their ancestors may have done during their youth.

Jackie Brown introduces energy flow through forest cycles in bite-size bits of information, weaved into an effective presentation for a mixed-age group of rambunctious home school youngsters.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ohio's champion eastern cottonwood

Ohio's champion eastern cottonwood* is inspiring, and easy to see along Cheshire Road at Africa Road in Alum Creek State Park, Delaware County. You will find easy parking along Cheshire Road at the north side of Cheshire Market. Just look north—you can’t miss this splendid tree!

Ohio State Champion Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides)
Circumference: 358 inches Height: 136’ Crown: 135’ Total score: 528
40.2391°N, 82.9620°W (NAD83/WGS84)

Cottonwoods are among the largest hardwoods of North America. Ohio’s champion eastern cottonwood is one of the largest of the largest, scoring nearly as high as the national champion eastern cottonwood found near Seward, NE. The Nebraska tree scores just a little higher at 563 points. The National Champion's magnificent double-trunk (see it here) is divided low near ground-level.

The trunk of Ohio's champion is even more imposing, I’d say. It's a multi-trunk tree as well, but the trunks are mingled seamlessly into a single cylindrical bole to well above ground-level before branching widely, reaching for open sky. It towers 136’ and emerges well above surrounding trees to intercept a lion’s share of sunshine.

Deeply furrowed warm-gray bark of eastern cottonwood is easily recognized at a distance.

No doubt, both champion trees sprouted in an opening where full sun encouraged growth of their divided trunks and full crowns. More often, cottonwoods grow straight or gently arching boles, and tall before branching into small to moderate crowns in a shared high canopy. Many cottonwoods grow together in even-age bands where they long ago pioneered open areas along streams and floodplains.

This magnificent tree is located near the head of a ravine opening into Alum Creek Reservoir.

About cottonwoods...

Cottonwoods obtained their name from early observers impressed by the copious quantities of seed “cotton” released from seed-pods during spring. In Ohio, during May, cottonwoods rain “cotton” along rivers and streams. Breezy tufts of delicate cottony strands carry seeds on the wind, and floating on water. A few land on sunny fresh mud where their rapid germination ensures a long first growing season free from competition with other species.

Cottonwoods are riparian trees, most successful where floods inundate low land burying woody and herbaceous competitors under fresh silt. Cottonwoods pioneer flood plain openings, sandbars, and migrating point-bars. Seedlings sprout rapidly, sending dense fibrous roots deep into silt. Once established, seedlings survive long inundation and burial in subsequent flood years. Cottonwoods mature rapidly, too, in about 35 years**.

Cottonwood ecology, the original river-dance...

Abundant cottonwoods partner with streams and rivers in an ancient meandering slow-dance of riparian renewal, the original river-dance. Spring floods renew the cycle annually. Flood water expands stream meanders. High banks erode along the outsides of meander bends while slack waters deposit fresh silt and sand on point-bars along the insides of bends. New sediment deposition is followed quickly by capture and stabilization by dense growths of cottonwood seedlings. The timing of cottonwood seed dispersal is choreographed with diminishing spring floods. Cotton-wafted seeds are certain to find fresh mud bathed in full sunlight.

Living natural streams are flanked by thin ribbons of cottonwood seedlings and saplings stabilizing fresh sediments. Landward, saplings form successively older bands. These ribbons of saplings are flanked by fewer and fewer increasingly large trees inland, often growing very large.

Many Ohio streams are dammed. They no longer follow the full, richly choreographed pattern of the ancient meandering river-dance because new sediment distribution is severely limited by modern flood-control operations. For some streams, the music has died altogether. The Ohio River is one sad example.

Ohio River "impoundments"...

The Ohio River of pre-settlement times was the central artery serving biodiversity in the Midwest, through seasonal rhythms of surging and waning waters that rippled to the headwaters of connected watersheds. Native Americans and early European pioneers found a vast verdant valley teaming with abundant and diverse life, and a tempestuous demeanor.

La Salle's "la belle riviere" ("the beautiful river") became legendary for both high water danger and low water struggle among frontiersmen, pioneers, and rivermen. It was the central artery for transportation and settlement in the Midwest until the iron age of railroads. And, it remains a waning resource conduit serving the mighty industrial heartland of North America through two centuries of immense growth. In service to economic growth, the Ohio River was dammed, dredged, leveed, and silted. Today, it is mostly a series of stabilized impoundments serving commercial transportation and flood control.

Many riparian ecosystems are impoverished today, from the loss of natural seasonal flooding—the slow heartbeat of watersheds. Long-term watershed benefits for humanity are reduced, and continue to diminish. Today, we draw diminishing dividends from ecosystem bank deposits made long before modern stream restructuring.

Cottonwood, monarch of the flood plain...

Cottonwood is king of the riparian pioneers. Abundant seed production and wind-dispersal, rapid germination, rapid growth, and the massive root-systems of cottonwoods provide important ecosystem services by slowing and reducing runoff and flood waters. Cottonwoods limit erosion of riverbanks and encourage silt deposition and stream bank renewal. Cottonwoods support migrating and nesting bird species. Cottonwoods are the most common among their guild (willows, notwithstanding). Cottonwoods construct a major framework in the superstructure of riparian ecosystems. They provide foundation and roofing, plumbing and air-conditioning; and they are beautiful trees.

*Ohio’s champion trees are detailed here:
Ohio’s 2007 Ohio Champion Trees – Native or Naturalized US

**Some P. deltoides details borrowed here:

Taylor, Jennifer L. 2001. Populus deltoides. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: [2008, February 26].

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Marking spring...

Our spring season is regulated by our calendar, but nature hears a different drummer. Nature's phenological calendar cycles through reproduction and migration, growth and wilt, activity and rest, and life and death. Nature's seasons are not regulated by our calendar, but by the flow of energy through the biosphere.

February skunk cabbage, Ross Lake fen, Ross County

I mark the commencement of spring with the first big bubble of warm moist air carried on south winds from our Gulf of Mexico to my backyard in south-central Ohio. Warm rain comes with the moist air; its warmth soaks energy into cold soil: Life responds.

American Robins follow the rain north. Flocks become more common, particularly in woodlands, after these early warm rains thaw the soil. Troops of hungry robins glean the leaf litter, noisily tossing leaves over looking for squirmy protein: And they flock through scrubby growths and along forest edges gleaning the last of the dried fruits from last year's crop, under the watchful eye of the local wintering mockingbird.

Small numbers of male Red-winged Blackbirds return with the first warm rain. Quickly, they stake their claim on a good marshy territory sure to attract a mate. Not long afterward they begin their display and they sing across the subdued marsh as it slowly wakes to onrushing Spring.

A few first Turkey Vultures wing north on a friendly south wind, sometimes discovering a few hardy brothers lingering in the cold north, more often joining raucous Black Vulture flocks squabbling over space on shared winter roosts.

Throngs of waterfowl move north in increasing numbers, too. Dabblers find open water on melting lakes and ponds to rest, and scatter in the morning to feed over large areas of thawing farm fields. Divers arrive and join a wintering flock to raft and feed in open waters of thawing lakes, sometimes more than two-thirds feeding under water at the same time.

Night life thrives in the first warm rain. Saturated soil raises worms to wet roadways and wakes amphibians into surges of movement toward vernal pools. Life gleams in the headlights of vehicles and a sad toll is taken.

Plants respond in subtle ways. Tree buds expand as surges of sap rise during these first warm sunny mornings. Embryonic leaves and flowers develop in miniature under tightly sealed bud scales, ready to burst out later in the season when warmth lingers longer.

Skunk cabbage, the earliest bloomer, aided by consistent warmth from groundwater springs, and able to generate its own additional warmth through remarkable living chemistry, raises thick fetid 'flowers' above the muck of fens. Skunk cabbage blooms very early, melting its way through snow and thin ice to be ready for the first waves of insect pollinators rising with the coming of warmth. The odor and the purplish mottling of the enveloping spathe and the organ-colored spadix inside may be adaptations to attract specialized pollinators that seek out the smell and appearance of thawing winter-kill carcasses torn open by hungry scavengers.

There are skunks everywhere after the first warmth of the season. They prowl for food, and more so for mates. Skunks find speeding cars and soon roadsides are littered with black and white carcasses; another sad toll.

The cold always returns after this first warmth. Remarkable amphibians, especially the Ambystomidae, our local mole salamanders, spotted, Jefferson's, leave eggs in vernal pools and disappear for another year, or remain under ice until the next warmth. Birds reverse migrate just as far as needed to find food available. Tree sap drops and buds wait for the next warmth to continue their certain expansion. Skunk cabbage flowers endure in freezing muck by generating their own heat, while mammal skunks return to their burrows to enjoy geothermal warmth.

Skunk cabbage begins nature's annual phenological calendar in southern Ohio. Its blooming echoes the first tap of nature's different drummer; the introductory note of a new season's symphony of life. The first warm rain riding a Gulf breeze north raises the orchestra.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Balmy breeze brings Turkey Vulture return

Today, three Turkey Vultures joined neighborhood Black Vultures on this cell tower; the first TUVU's I've seen in Ross County, Ohio for nearly two months. Turkey Vultures are decidedly migratory, few linger. Black Vultures don't migrate, though they may wander widely*.

Black Vultures in spread-wing posture drip-dry after heavy morning rain. Turkey Vultures seen on lower deck.
(39.3454°N, 83.0209°W (NAD83/WGS84))

South winds brought more than rain to the Southeast U.S. during the previous 24 hours: Vultures are on the move. Watch for waterfowl to increase movements north as well. A line of low pressure systems connected by a trough is staged to bring heavy movements north tonight, February 5, and tomorrow.

The Real-Time Weather RUC (Rapid Update Cycle) forecast model predicts uniform south winds over large areas of the Southeast as far north as Ohio.

Birds are not the only wildlife influenced by warm February rain carried by moist Gulf air masses: Watch for migrating salamanders! Rainy roadways near vernal pools are salamander crossings.

Black Vultures, pictured above, are increasing annually in Ohio, and throughout the Southeast United States. Soon after the end of the Little Ice Age** in the later half of the 18th Century this southeastern species began its inexorable expansion northward. Initial population growth and range expansion may have been stalled by pollution, pesticides like DDT, and by human persecution during the early and mid-20th Century.

Bruce Peterjohn (The Birds of Ohio, 2001) summarizes Black Vulture abundance in Ohio beginning with John J. Audubon's early 18th Century note of summering Black Vultures at Cincinnati. They have been local and uncommon, though slowly expanding, in southern and southeastern counties along the Allegheny front through the 1980's. During the 1990's through the present they are expanding more rapidly northward as well as increasing their numbers in southern Ohio. A look at Christmas Bird Count data and Breeding Bird Survey data shows consistent increases as well.

Black Vultures are gregarious: They often gather in large local winter roosts. Roosting sites sometimes alternate between several favored locations like large dead snags, cell towers, barn or lodge roofs (Hocking Hills State Park Lodge is a sure-thing), and utility towers. During daytime they separate into small groups and survey many square miles of terrain using their exquisite vision to find carrion or vulnerable living prey. During warm seasons, Black Vultures, unable to forage by smell, will keep an eye on local Turkey Vultures because they can find carrion at great distances by following the smell. The Black Vultures follow the Turkey Vultures to their carrion prize, often ganging up on them and running the Turkey Vultures off!

*Black Vultures in the northern extremes of the U.S. breeding range wander widely and appear migratory. Hawk Migration Association of North American: "its wide ranging habits and the presence of wintering birds at the northern limits of its range confuses its migratory status."

**The Little Ice Age was a climatic minimum, especially in North America and Europe, lasting from about the late 12th or 13th Century through the middle or late 18th Century. North America was explored and pioneered during this period. Descriptions of cold weather in period literature are very interesting. Begin with the Flemish paintings of Brueghel the elder, and be sure to see Meriwether Lewis' descriptions for the winter of 1804 among the Mandan on the Missouri River in your favorite edition of The Journals of Lewis and Clark. I recommend the portable Dover Publishing edition; a three volume set edited by famed ornithologist, Elliott Coues.

Videophilia trounces biophilia, tune in for details...

Biophilia, Edward O. Wilson's label for our innate love of nature, as we express it through nature-based recreation activities, is losing ground to videophilia, the growing electronic media obsession shackling today's couch-bound youth. Parents are not far behind: Multi-media homes offer glowing media for every purpose and for all ages (this blog, for example) without those stubborn grass stains.

Conservation scientists released new findings confirming this prevalent suspicion, February 4, in the current Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Authors Oliver, Pergams, and Zaradic present their new findings in Evidence for a fundamental and pervasive shift away from nature-based recreation. The title serves well as abstract for the larger article.

The Internet, movie rentals, general television programming, and video games are the clear winners over bird feeders, local woodlots, local parks, state parks, national parks, and maybe even the American backyard!

Our youth are participating in electronic relationships, developing electronic personae, constructing cyber-environments, and above all else, fighting cyber-wars: So much for old fashioned Capture the Flag: I'll bet there's an electronic version for couch-potatoes.

I'm certain biophilia is innate. I'm equally certain youth need heavy doses of direct hands-on nature to develop nature-based values. Biophilia is a seeding in need of sunshine. Adopt your local woodlot, visit your local parks, take your family and friends geocaching to get that techno-fix from your GPS receiver! Appreciation for nature, particularly biodiversity, rises from personal experience.

“My works are the issue of pure and simple experience, who is the one true mistress.”
Leonardo da Vinci