Monday, April 29, 2013

Return to Ohio's "Little Smokies"

American Woodcock bathing in Upper Twin Creek, Shawnee State Forest Wilderness Area. Image by Julie Davis.

Golden ragwort, blooming abundantly along roadsides and creeks.

Lousewort, another fairly common roadside flower.

Eastern redbud mingles lavender highlights with the white highlights painted by flowering dogwoods along roadsides and edges of forest openings

Flowering dogwood, common roadside highlights.

Shawnee State Forest, Scioto County, Ohio is a traditional birding hotspot, a forest full of diverse breeding birds and a stopover magnet for weary migrants bound for points north. The botany is beautiful, too. Spring wildflowers are worth the trip to Ohio's Little Smokies even if you forgot your bino's. We time our annual birder migration to deep southern Ohio to coincide with that of early warbler waves surging north into Ohio during late April, while shorebirds are still on the move, making our travels a combo trip, an opportunity to see a lot of avian diversity in one packed weekend in beautiful wild landscapes of Ohio's southern Allegheny Plateau. At least that used to be so.

These days, the trip seems a little like Forest Gump's metaphorical box of chocolates, you just don't know what you're going to get during the last of April--it's the weird weather. Two years ago, 2011 was a record wet spring, and migrating warblers were few and far between. The next year, 2012, was a record warm spring, and dry, like visiting the forest weeks later in the season. This weekend, the last of April 2013 was much cooler than usual, and very few northbound migrants were passing through on their way to Canada. Even so, the locals, the local breeding birds by themselves, are an avian adventure in song and color animating the hilly landscape among fresh greens of trees' delicate new leaves and the flowery forest floor.

We found many local breeding birds and a few migrants, too. Colorful Yellow-rumped Warblers and American Redstarts were abundant. Emphatic singing Ovenbirds were the most common territorial defenders. We found them working hard as night approached, too. We enjoyed a walk through several territories as darkness dissolved the shadows and Thoreau's Night-birds delivered their ecstatic crepuscular displays.  The American Woodcock pictured above was using our favorite mid-day lunch spot. We stopped short to wait for it to complete its ablutions but it was rudely interrupted by an ATV splashing through the stream ford that served as its bath pool.

Delicate fresh leaves of red maple, an abundant tree species.

Red maple samaras, flowers and fruit precede fully emerged leaves.

Chestnut oak, common along ridges and upper hill slopes.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Environmental History Timeline April 22, 1970

The first Earth Day, a nationwide demonstration, April 22, 1970.

Judy Moody and Denis Hayes organizing for the first Earth Day.

The first Earth Day involved 20 million demonstrators engaged in teach-in's, sit-in's, and gatherings involving thousands of schools and communities. The scale of involvement astounded founders, the media, and the political establishment. Today, Earth Day is a global celebration inspiring conservation-related activities.

Earth Day founder Senator Gaylord Nelson wrote,
Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time nor resources to organize 20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself.

Earthrise, December 24, 1968, Apollo 8, 075:48:54 mission time. Image presented in correct mission orientation as seen by astronauts Jim Lovell, Bill Anders, and Frank Borman orbiting the stark gray moon.

The image of the first Earthrise observed by human beings and broadcast to global television viewers just seventeen months earlier is credited by many as the inspiration for the groundswell of support for the first Earth Day and the modern era of popular environmentalism. The image of our blue planet, looking small, distant, and alone in the blackness of space, delivered a paradigm shift, rendering invalid the popular perception of endless resources, endless capacity for pollution and exploitation. Earth became Spaceship Earth.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Keeping the American Kestrel common, an Ohio Ornithological Society conservation priority

Colorful kestrels animate roadsides wherever adequate habitat is available. A little habitat goes a long way if birds' needs are met. Highway right-of-ways often provide hunting perches and ample mice and insects, common fare for kestrels, but nest cavities, natural or otherwise, are hard to come by. We can help.

American Kestrel. photo provided by Ohio Division of Wildlife

You can help support an American Kestrel comeback! Your small donation can help support this nest box project. Click the "gofundme" button at right to help purchase supplies and equipment. It's easy. This project is funded by volunteers like YOU!**

Kestrels capture our attention, their antics paint smiles on our faces. These airy sprites are the Tinkerbell's of the falcon family. They hover and float, or dash about in blurry bursts of energy, then they tee-up on roadside utility wires or sapling-tips for lengthy spells, nearly motionless, but for their trademark tail-bobbing and their constantly searching glances, until they spy a micro-movement below, then drop to grab and make a meal of a vole or grasshopper. No magic wands or pixie dust needed, kestrels may be diminutive little falcons, but for their bantam weight class, they are equal in armament with their larger brethren. Their needle talons and hooked bill take tiny grasshoppers in mid-air or fat voles squeaking under the thick thatch of roadside turf. Kestrels are road signs for basic habitat health!

American Kestrels are outfitted for survival, wherever their needs are met; open areas with places to perch among an abundance of insects and small rodents, and a nearby nest cavity. American Kestrels are obligate cavity nester's. That may be their principle vulnerability, their Achilles tendon. Our rural areas, particularly roadsides, are losing their cavity-pocked old tree snags. That's why nest boxes may prove essential.

University of Findlay students training for periodic monitoring of kestrel box activity, to collect data for the American Kestrel Partnership. Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative Coordinator, Amanda Conover, overseeing training: Findlay Oilers': Tracy Swanson on the ladder, Tessa Brown holding the ladder, background; Madeleine Kuieck, monitoring team coordinator, holding the ladder, foreground. Your blogger, Ohio Ornithological Society Conservation Chair, Tom Bain, behind the camera.

Working together for kestrels, The Ohio Ornithological Society (OOS) helped assemble a partnership for progress. OOS partnered with the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative (OBCI), the Ohio Department of Transportation, largest public lands holder in Ohio, the Ohio Division of Wildlife, and the American Kestrel Partnership, a Peregrine Fund effort,  to mount 25 nest boxes on highway sign back's along US route's 23 and 30 near Upper Sandusky, Ohio during December, in time to offer wintering falcons a handy roosting cavity.

This new partnership for American Kestrel conservation is the most recent in OOS's long history of working to keep kestrels common. We are excited about our new partners, particularly, the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative (OBCI) and OBCI's new coordinator, Amanda Conover. Amanda, new in her position little more than a year ago, has taken the lead in this new effort to support kestrels. Results already are in place, twenty-five kestrel boxes are mounted on highway sign-backs in Wyandot County, Ohio. Our monitoring team, students from the University of Findlay are trained, kestrels are moving in! Next year, more boxes in more highway habitat in another Ohio county, we hope.

Why the concern for a fairly common bird? Well, its two-fold: first, American Kestrels are declining in Ohio (and elsewhere), the trend is alarming; second, the time to help a species of concern is while it is still common. Waiting until species' populations are critically low is just bad conservation strategy and very inefficient use of endangered conservation dollars! Early intervention is inexpensive intervention. Let's keep common birds common! It makes sense.

So, what's the trend look like? Two important indices point to declines in Ohio kestrels. The annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count results, and the Breeding Bird Survey results. Graphical data illustrate the decline.

Audubon Christmas Bird Count data, thirty years of American Kestrels in Ohio. The decline is obvious in this early winter census graph of Ohio kestrels since my first CBC, it's personal, not just principle.

Breeding Bird Survey, 44 years of American Kestrels breeding in Ohio. The period, 1990 to 2010, shows the decline trend best, following what looks like post DDT gains during the 70's and 80's.*

Now is the time to help kestrels, OOS and partners are making it happen. More, the Peregrine Fund is leading the nation-wide data analysis effort to develop a clearer picture of what is happening to kestrel populations throughout North America, to better understand how we can help kestrels remain common. Working together, we can help kestrels animate our roadsides in generations to come.

 *speculative interpretation based on graphical pattern, not statistical tests.
**your blogger has contributed many uncompensated hours and many donated miles to this project. The OOS Board has contributed funds and hours and miles of assistance, box building.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Get rid of garlic mustard, now

Early spring is a great time to go after your local garlic mustard infestation. Garlic mustard is an invasive herb spreading rapidly through Midwestern landscapes and beyond. Its a leafy green monster crowding out native wildflowers by shading them out and by poisoning them, a chemical attack on nearby plants called allelopathy.

Garlic mustard in April. Now is the time to stop the spread, before flower stalks rise.

Garlic mustard uprooted using a spade. The soil was batted off the roots.

Most people don't have limitless time and energy to go after invasive plants so we recommend going after quantity, not quality.

How to go about it:
  • We suggest your goal during early spring is, first, to stop the plants from flowering, second, to eliminate plants.
  • Use a spade or weed fork, push it into the soil near the base of the plant to dig out or cut off the tap roots a few inches below the surface, lever the plant upward and flop it over upside down beside its hole. Bat the root ball with the tool to knock off soil, then leave it upside down to dry out.
  • Don't make perfect the enemy of good enough, do damage to as many plants as you can, don't invest a lot of time in getting every last bit of one plant if you can use that effort in getting most of five other plants. It will take more than one outing and more than one season to get rid of garlic mustard. Get recovering plants next time out. 
  • Go after outlier plants first--stop the spread. Go after the core of the infestation after you stop the spread.
  • Get the plants before they flower (during late March through April in Ohio). Don't let them flower, go to seed, grow the problem!
What if I have little time and the flowers are already opening before I can get to it?
  • You can cut off dozens of plants in minutes. Use a weed-cutter; a manual scythe, a weed-whacker, whatever, to knock the top off of the plants, make it fun. Yes, the plants will recover and try again to flower, and you can go knock off the top of the plants again later in the season.
I have lots of time and energy to devote to invasive garlic mustard control, what should I do?
  • OK, you have time, energy, and a strong back: Pull out each plant by the roots. If your soil is loose and moist, most plants and clusters of plants will pull out, tap roots and all. Try to disturb the soil as little as possible. Compost the the pulled plants if you get them before they flower. Once they begin to flower, bag 'em.
I have read that I can just spray garlic mustard with an herbicide, isn't that a whole lot easier?
  • We recommend manual methods during spring. During spring, plants grow so fast, they can out grow the impacts of some herbicide applications.
  • Use of broadcast herbicide applications will get the nearby native wildflowers by overspray unless you use extreme caution. 
  • During late fall, after most native plants are dormant, the green leafy clusters of garlic mustard leaves, the over-wintering form of the plants, are vulnerable to some very low percentage, targeted herbicide applications during warm spells (glyphosate formulations labeled for such use).
When using herbicides: always select an herbicide labeled for the purpose you have in mind, read the entire label and follow the label instructions, exactly. Today's high tech herbicides are not your grandfather's herbicides, enough said!
 More about garlic mustard from GeoEcology blog, here

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Environmental History Timeline November, 2006

Sudden honey bee colony losses alarm beekeepers, first report of colony collapse disorder (CCD)

Catastrophic honey bee colony losses reported by commercial beekeeper Dave Hackenberg in late 2006 alarmed the commercial honey bee industry. Hackenberg reported losses impacting 2200 of 3000 commercial hives at his Florida apiary. Beekeepers across North America and major segments of industrial agriculture feared widespread catastrophic honey bee losses as reports demonstrated that colony collapse was continent-wide.

Honey bees have suffered repeated sudden declines in the past, followed by rapid recoveries. More recent pathogens have delivered more serious lasting declines. The Varroa mite, a bee parasite discovered in the United States in 1987, has resulted in a 45% decline in honey bee colonies with its spread across the continent. Colony collapse disorder, so far, has followed an even more alarming pattern. CCD peaked  in many areas during 2007--2008, then eased somewhat, but crippling losses continue. CCD and a host of maladies continue to plague commercial and hobby beekeepers. Most areas see devastating 30% to 50% losses of colonies annually, depending on care, location and weather conditions. Agriculture requires immense numbers of pollinating insects, just in time*. Is agriculture at risk?

How could a spike in colony failures strike across the continent nearly simultaneously? At least half of all honey bee colonies in North America are traveling commercial pollinators. Almost all of these are trucked to the vast almond groves in California's central valley during winter, where hives from across North America potentially share pathogens, including a multitude of recently discovered bee viruses, before returning to origin apiaries. Bee viruses, vectored by the now ubiquitous Varroa mites, plague bee colonies throughout North America. Beekeepers are also concerned about the proliferation of new pesticide chemistries and technologies (possible stressors range from ubiquitous seed corn coatings, to retail suburban landscape maintenance chemicals). Multiple stressors in combination may be defeating colonies.

New agribusiness models operating at grand scales and new technologies in agriculture; nutrient delivery systems, systemic pest controls, and so on, have greatly increased acreage, acreage productivity, and agribusiness profitability in recent decades. Food production demands from the ballooning global population threaten to outstrip reliable food supply nevertheless. The future of agriculture at scale may prove to be nonlinear and unpredictable in outcomes and profitability, too much of a good thing. Already, local produce movements and clean food initiatives are bringing some purchases and profits back home to local green growers, but will there be enough pollinators left to deliver the goods? 

Honey bees are non-native, introduced to North America by colonists by 1622. Feral colonies rapidly swarmed beyond European settlements of the time. The initial 17th century ecological impacts; the losses among native bee species and other native pollinators caused by the newly introduced colonial honey bees to North America can never be known. Researchers fear that modern honey bee maladies impact native pollinators. Do ecological impacts of honey bees in North America continue?

Today, honey bees and diverse native pollinators are essential for agriculture, one out of every three mouthfuls of food consumed in North America required a pollinator to help bring it to market. A healthy diet demands healthy pollinators, whether our produce is home-grown or purchased through a supply chain from far flung mega-growers.

Honey bees cannot do it alone. Native bee species are important pollinators for agriculture and for native plant species, many of which are not effectively pollinated by honey bees. The recent honey bee crisis is occurring against a backdrop of continued long-term native bee declines. Today, both native bees and honey bees (and other native pollinators) are in crisis.

Do something for pollinators.

What can we do? Check out Pollinator Partnership.
See Scientific American 2009 CCD summary here or here.

*"just in time" is a business strategy to reduce production cost by bringing in just enough resources, just when needed. California's almond groves are manicured hectares that support local native pollinators and honey bees poorly, excepting a few weeks of almond grove bloom and a few more of stone fruit grove bloom. I stretch the just in time concept a little, herein. Honey bees are brought in to the groves for seasonal pollination services (2.5 million hives were needed for the 2013 season) in place of maintaining diverse floral support for local year 'round pollinators. During 2013, service prices per hive are rumored to have reached over $200.00 for grove owners who did not contract lower prices in advance of the colony survival projections for 2013 (colony losses expected to exceed 50% in 2013). Maybe now it will be good business to support local pollinators year 'round by re-introducing and maintaining diverse flowering plants in and around the tree groves? Trouble is, only narrow roadsides remain in major growing regions, very  limited space for native habitat restoration to take hold. How about one dedicated acre per hectare to start?