Sunday, April 24, 2011

Before Earth Day

As friends in the CCC alumni group used to say, "Before Earth Day, there was the CCC!" (Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1941) The CCC does have a reputation as this nation's first big organized attempt at environmental protection, pre-dating the first Earth Day by as much as 37 years. But times were different then, and its record, sad to say, is mixed. Despite reforestation and fire-fighting efforts (now not universally appreciated), the CCC boys engaged in a number of less environ-mentally positive projects by today's standards.

Among those were rodent control (including kangaroo rats in California and prairie dogs everywhere in the west); rattlesnake slaughter (serving no known purpose and somewhat contradictory to the required rodent control); predator control (400,000 predatory animals annihilated, again increasing the necessity for rodent control); eradication of some 300 million native Ribes shrubs (gooseberries and currants, which carry white pine blister rust, white pine being the preferred species); and drainage of wetlands (then called "swamps") for mosquito control.

In all, according to Nature's New Deal, by Neil M. Maher, they modified 118 million acres. Presumably that total doesn't include the building of roads in wilderness and national parks. All of these won the CCC the enmity of local and national conservationists, among them Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, and Rosalie Edge.

Don't get me wrong— I still think the CCC was probably the best public work program to date...

Before Earth Day, however, and even before the CCC... there was Arbor Day. Proving that nothing we humans do is an unalloyed blessing, even an innocent-looking holiday like Arbor Day has its dark side. I even wrote a somewhat critical article about 12 years ago. These days, when we need all the CO2-gobbling plants out there we can get, maybe I should re-evaluate my opinion. I'll still find it hard to believe we need trees everywhere, though—no matter what species, no matter where. I'm too fond of grasses for that! Another reason is that some researchers have shown that grasslands can be as effective as forests at reducing carbon dioxide.

Of course, science marches on, and you can also find research that demonstrates the opposite effect. Your choice!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Born to be Wild

This one's for Hoosier Sue, with my apologies.

Chickens are domestic animals, we're quite certain, but that turns out to cover a range of possible behaviors. To pervert George Orwell a bit, some are more domestic than others.

Araucanas are "others" in that classification. I like them because they represent a breed that is closer somehow to the original species of chicken, and I admire their hardiness, fearless personalities, and attractive coloring (bird and egg). They are not pure white nor bred to be egg-laying machines with feathers, as Leghorns are. They are themselves, and they go about their business in their own ways.

Here I should digress a minute to explain that there's some controversy over the use of "Araucana." Araucanas are like yams, apparently, in that they do not truly occur in the U.S. and what we simplistically call Araucanas are more properly known as Ameraucanas, or "Easter-eggers." Also spelled Americanas, so we've recently settled on the nickname A'cana to cover all our bases.

In any case, when HS asked for a recommendation on chicken breeds, I heartily endorsed A'canas out of my fondness for them. Perhaps she should have asked the Husband, who remembers (though he didn't mention it last year when I brought home eight A'cana chicks) that this breed also offers difficulties.

Trusting me, HS acquired a mixed flock of Barred Plymouth Rocks (a wonderful, and highly domestic bird) and A'canas. Her chicks are lovely... and one of them, a Barred Rock, soon showed that he would not be contributing to her supply of fresh eggs. The chicks are 7 weeks old now, and a few days ago she reported this story:

I'm in the kitchen and hear this "Errr Err" and think, "What the %^&*(?"

And then it dawns on me.

And then another one. Better. Louder. Errrrrrr Errrr

At least he waited until 7:30 a.m.

"Lt. Worf" as she calls him, the name revealing how early the effects of testosterone show up, is hand-tamed and sweet... so far. We are hoping for the best.

But back to our story.

Where the Grass is Greener

The difficulties with A'canas became apparent this spring. Fully feathered and full-grown now, these chickens began to appear in places we're not used to seeing them. Dangerous places: In the backyard, where the dogs hang out; on rooftop of the coop; and in the front yard. Daily now, we can expect them to 'fly the coop.' What was initially cause for panic has now become routine: clear the backyard of chickens before letting Dog #1 out the door. Dog #2 seems to be congenial to the escapee.

Last week, we discovered WHY she's developed such fondness for the backyard. The Husband found a clutch of 7 beautiful green eggs under the big juniper. Now we understand—a safe place (out of reach of skunks who have been enjoying 'hen fruit' in the coop daily of late) where, she clearly hoped, we wouldn't keep stealing the results of her labor. She was wrong about the latter, but she still finds her way over the fence every time she gets the urge to lay an egg. At least now we know where to look for them!

Before I let the chicken-killer dog loose, I check the back fence. If I find an A'cana pacing back and forth, waiting to be allowed back into the chicken yard, I open the gate, and she happily rushes home to the food dish. Her self-powered escapades are one-way only.

Not so our front yard bird. She has now perfected the art of escaping and returning as often as she likes.

Friday, April 22, 2011

For Earth Day... for Earth!

“We can think of the Earth and its natural resources as a one-time inheritance that we received from nature or God… and the question is are we going to squander that inheritance like a derelict rich kid and go broke, or are we going to treat it like the fortune that it is and be good stewards?... Global society has been acting like the derelict rich kid, and experts agree that we’ve been in global overshoot for 3 decades… by mid20-30s we’ll need two Earths to support us and, of course, we only have one.”
—Emmett Duffy; Professor of Marine Science at the
College of William and Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science

Every year, I think about how I'll tackle the immense topic of Earth Day. It looms huge for me because, although Earth Day is and ought to be every day, most of us think consciously about it once a year (if that!). But the once-a-year version is significant to me because 41 years ago, when it all started, I was a college student in the midst of our campus activities—which focused mostly on education, recycling, and other cosmetic efforts. Hey, we tried!

Now, though, there's a lot more meaning to Earth Day for me, even though it seems largely neglected in our world of heedless consumption. Sometimes it's hard to be hopeful in these times of global climate change and other effects of rampant human overpopulation. One thoughtful, authoritative, and articulate blogger helps bring me back to Earth every time I visit (even though he's blogging elsewhere these days), and he is Emmett Duffy, the Natural Patriot. Here are a few of my favorite samples from 2009:

Quotes in his “Food for Thought” sidebar are only one reason to visit the Natural Patriot. I love this revolving quote widget of his, or whatever it is, and today I discovered you can refresh them by clicking through with your mouse. So in lieu of further pontificating on my part, I bring you a limited selection of more memorable comments on our predicament. Quote addict that I am, this list could go on forever, but I'm trying to be discreet!

Most have gone long unheeded, but... we can't say we haven't been warned! Even a variety of American presidents have tried to sound the alarm.

You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.
—Abraham Lincoln

Saving our civilization is not a spectator sport.
—Lester Brown.

We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics.
—Franklin Delano Roosevelt

I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future.
—John F. Kennedy

Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is a party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.
—Wendell Berry

The Creation, whether you believe it was placed on this planet by a single act of God or accept the scientific evidence that it evolved autonomously during billions of years, is the greatest heritage, other than the reasoning mind itself, ever provided to humanity.
—Edward O. Wilson

Do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave? Yes, but just what and whom do we love? Surely not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter downriver. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communities without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species.
—Aldo Leopold

One for the Tea Party:

I don’t mind paying taxes. They buy me civilization.
—Oliver Wendell Holmes

Lastly, in the true spirit of Earth Day:

Do not let spacious plans for a new world divert your energies from saving what is left of the old.
—Winston Churchill

Monday, April 18, 2011

BGR Reminder; Got Books?

Don't forget—the deadline for submissions to this month's Berry-Go-Round plant carnival is April 25th. Submissions are trickling in slowly. I've also rounded up quite a few fun posts in case they're needed, but will include proper submissions on a priority basis. See below for instructions on how to share your favorite plant posts—or someone else's!

In other news: A botanical bibliophile's dream... Jack and Martha Carter are liquidating their collection of botanical books over at Mimbres Publishing. I hesitate to even mention it before I have a chance to shop myself!

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Growing Up Pie, Part 1

The young couple who took up residence next door last spring are doing a little housekeeping. I see them refurbishing the nest in the Ponderosa Pine below the house, bringing a new stick or two where needed, or rearranging a bit here and there.

I think last summer was their first season as newlyweds. Being 100 feet away from the birdfeeders didn't hurt; they probably grew up here themselves and wanted to stay in the neighborhood.

Yesterday, I caught them in the garden, in flagrante delicto, and for 45 seconds or so, I was able to tell which was the male and which the female! Alas, the moment escaped the camera, but I think I know what's coming this summer. Clearly the "courtship" is over.

Usually I have a ringside seat from which to watch their efforts. Every once in a while, the view is obstructed.

A half-dozen or so local does and yearlings are recognizable now, but this gentleman is a stranger who wandered through in mid-March, intent on the does, no doubt. It's that time of year.

Setting Up Housekeeping

It was last April when these two Black-billed Magpies picked out our youngish ponderosa pine for their starter home. I guess it didn't occur to me to document the process until construction was well underway. If you are curious about nest-building details, the Watcher has, of course, covered magpie architecture.

All those trips back and forth carrying sticks can really work up an appetite. In April, one year ago today in fact, I buttered the bark of the ash tree out front with a suet dough concoction. It didn't take them long to discover and exploit this new food source.

Finally, about May 21st, the nest was complete. All was quiet well into June. Many more trips were made, bringing food to whomever was sitting. We suspected eggs, but never confirmed by direct observations.

Events continued to unfold, and finally the activity level rose, as did the noise. In mid-July, some grew impatient inside, and began waiting on the doorstep for food to appear. Growing up seems to involve a lot of waiting.

But mom or dad always managed to show up in time.

Kinda makes me glad we planted that tree, a bare-root seedling, back when we moved here ourselves as newlyweds.

Coming Soon: Part 2, A Raucous Summer

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Suddenly Spring

By the time I started actively searching for signs of spring this year, it was well on its way!

I should have checked for Easter daisies (Townsendia cf. hookeri) on St. Paddy's Day (March 17th). I didn't get to my favorite patch until April Fool's Day, but they were chugging along just fine, and right where I expected them to be. You can see them, right?

How about now?

Some of our earliest spring wildflowers are well hidden—if you didn't know exactly where they are, you'd be hard pressed to spot them! Hidden in plain sight, right along one of our most popular trails in full range of unscooped dog poop, this patch of Easter daisies was still unobserved by 99% of passersby. Those who saw me with camera and dog weren't even curious about what I was trying to photograph.

How's this for an Easter bouquet?

The stemless Easter daisy can't help but look like an old-fashioned "posy" or nosegay, with all the flowers clustered at the base, obscuring a rosette of leaves that are, by themselves, easy to overlook. Without the burst of white color to draw the eye, these little guys don't suggest any dramatic display at all!

The early bees are having no trouble finding them, however.

Equally cryptic are those who will bloom a bit later, now mere hints of beauty to come. Here, a feathery rosette of Lambert's loco cozies up to the glaucous blue basal leaves of one-sided Penstemon. Only by watching through the season would we know what they're going to be capable of producing!

The name of this bulb I planted long ago in the backyard popped back into my head this morning as I went out to take an updated photo. Siberian squill, Scilla siberica, naturalizes even here in the rugged and challenging West apparently.

I stand corrected, thanks to Nina at Nature Remains and depending on whether you're a "lumper" or a "splitter." This is, per the criteria at Wikipedia, Chionodoxa rather than Scilla. Hmmm... "Glory-of-the-snow." Think I like that better than "Siberian squill."

The few that I planted, probably 25 years ago now, before I knew better and when I still had gardening illusions, have now escaped the rock garden and carpeted even gravel waste areas in my none-too-well-tended yard. Blooming before the daffodils, they hint of things to come; however dry the season, they manage well enough on the residual soil moisture of previous snows and just ignore the hot dry season in dormancy.

Thankfully, they've not escaped the confines of the limited backyard area, as the grape hyacinths used to do before the chickens and deer ate them all. Although it may be fine in controlled shady lawn sites, the thought of deliberately planting it in wooded areas back East, as the garden websites seem to suggest, raises concern. I'm sure it'd be well able to outcompete native spring wildflowers, and I wonder whether it's ever considered invasive.

Also naturalizing, but more welcome, is this Yellow Prairie Violet, Viola nuttallii, happily blooming nearby in the same gravel area. Like the perennial bulbs, these natives thrive on the neglect provided by the absent-minded gardener, as well as the indifference of the season, which keeps forgetting to add moisture.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Where Do Orioles Live?

Suddenly Spring is in the offing, and where there was nothing showing but bleak just a few days ago, now an air of hope and greenery emerges. I thought I'd better get out and grab some photos of Oriole Abodes (say that 3 times fast) before they became, once again, invisible.

Rocking and resilient, these nests have weathered the test of time and the gale force winds we've been having recently. I'll be pleasantly surprised if any of these photos are in focus, as I could barely operate the camera without losing my hat to the wind!

Elm trees, ours and the neighbors, seem preferred in my small sampling, with two nests per tree. Chinese or perhaps Siberian, I don't bother to distinguish, as both are unwelcome exotics. Except, apparently, to the orioles. (Ours, you may recall, are Bullock's Orioles.)

What a place to sleep, lulled by winds in these deep woven hammocks! I wonder—Do they build anew each year? Are these two elms, with two nests each, a record of previous occupation, or do they represent multi-family housing?

One hardy pair gave the neighbor's Russian-olive a go.

Of course, the Orioles them- selves are nowhere in sight as yet, and the trees stand vacant still. But Spring is all about hope, is it not?

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Botany and the Indian Gulch Fire

First the Fire
(Photo courtesy Chuck Haraway)

As of Friday night at 6:40 p.m., March 25, 2011, "The Indian Gulch Fire is 100 percent contained after burning 1570 acres." Just that morning, 9 a.m., the fire map showed 1502 acres burned. In a great use of technology, the Jeffco Sheriff's Department kept a blog, regularly updated from the front lines.

I haven't seen a final map, but I'm guessing the fire captured the westernmost gulch, shown on this 3/25 map as an uncontrolled fireline, accounting for the 68 acres added to the tally on Friday. Here's my version of the official map overlain on topo; boundaries are approximate.

Also that Friday morning, Incident Commander Muir diverted some air resources from the Indian Gulch Fire to support firefighting efforts in Douglas County, Colorado, where the Franktown Fire (aka, Burning Tree Fire), also partly a grassland fire, burned 1,600 acres in little more than 24 hours before it was contained. On the 21st, firefighters briefly battled and conquered a third fire near Evergreen. A busy week!

In all, firefighters from 65 agencies responded to the Indian Gulch fire. They came from all over Colorado, plus Arizona, Idaho, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Florida(??!). The Jeffco Sheriff's Department reported that "fire crews have enjoyed a wave of support. Citizens have dropped off food, beverages, personal hygiene items, socks, and other supplies, all of which have been put to good use. Local businesses have offered free food and coffee to the firefighters between shifts."

Because I captured no photographs, please drop in on another local blogger, at Fun with Gravity, for great photos of this epic ecological event. Mtnrunner2 kindly gave me permission to use this dramatic photo. (Reminds me of Mordor.)

Local Ecology and Botany

Funny, we were just talking about Big Bluestem a week ago, and many of those south- and east-facing slopes I mentioned then were in the line of fire, so to speak. You can see the orangey bluestem just below the burned area in this photo, taken several days later. The dark shrubs below the line are unburned, but it's hard to distinguish burned area from dormant shrublands at this distance. That ashy white color above reveals the charred area a bit better.

You didn't hear much in the press about it, but Indian Gulch seems to have been predominantly a grassland fire, not so much a forest fire. Given the winds we had, that's a good thing! No doubt the firefighters struggled through some shrub-choked thickets in the gulches as well, but part of what burned had to be bluestem.

Also well in the line of fire, as revealed in the "no structures threatened" reports, is public open space parkland (Mt. Galbraith Park, at the east end, shown in gray here); more is private undeveloped land (Goltra property to the west). That's the good news.

Indian Gulch is also an area of significant botanical and ecological interest. That was, in fact, part of the reason the area was acquired as Open Space in the first place. Listed as a "Conservation Area" in a 1993 report by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, the Indian Gulch area contains an occurrence of the rare Ute ladies' tresses orchid, Spiranthes diluvialis, identified in 1984 (from herbarium specimens) as a distinct species from the more robust Spiranthes romanzoffiana. [HT to the Chemist for botanical support on this one; Spidil and I are not well acquainted. He kindly provided this photo as well.] The area contains one of 10 original populations (8 of which are extant) in Colorado, and the only one in our county. Populations in Colorado and Utah accounted for 84% of the known individuals of Spiranthes diluvialis when surveyed in 2004.

Can't help wondering whether any orchids burned, and how tolerant they may be. As a species of wet/riparian grasslands, Spiranthes has probably been through this before.

In the End

All expectations are now raised for an incredibly busy fire season this year. (The newer Crystal Fire in Larimer Co. has already burned 4,500 acres.) The little graupely-sleet falling as I write this probably won't amount to much relief. We need a good upslope, dumping a couple feet of snow! (Nice view of red fire retardant on the hillsides, and charred areas to the right, in this last photo by Chuck Haraway.)

Thankfully, no lives, livestock, or homes were lost. Both the Indian Gulch and Franktown fires are believed to be caused by human action. Investigations continue.