Sycamore Grove Farm, Madison County
The Cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)is a social bird that lives in Virginia all year round. Their population increases during the winter with migration from the north. Mostly seen in flocks, cedar waxwings move around looking for berries, their food of choice. They eat serviceberry, cedar berry, strawberry, mulberry, dogwood and raspberry. These birds eat in shifts, with one group eating first and then moving out of the way for the next group to come in. This is very different than most birds, who just try to grab what they can individually.
Cedar waxwings are a major dispersing agent of seeds of various fruit species as their digestive system is so fast that the seed is expelled intact. They can also be responsible for significant damage to commercial fruit farms, which consider them a pest.
During the summer before berries are ripe, cedar waxwings eat insects, including mayflies, dragonflies and stoneflies, which they catch on the wing. In late summer and fall, cedar waxwings have been observed eating overripe berries that have fermented in the sun, which causes the birds to become intoxicated. Because they can gorge on fruit, there have been instances when individual birds have actually died from intoxication. While I have never seen this “drunken” behavior, last year I saw a flock clean every single berry off of one of our large cedar trees that was laden with ripe berries.
The habitat that attracts cedar waxwings includes woodlands of all types, particularly areas along streams. They are also observed in old fields and grasslands, farms, orchards, and suburban gardens that have fruiting trees or shrubs. Cedar waxwings spend much of their time in the tops of tall trees. Our farm is bordered by trees on two sides and the farm across the street is wooded – so we often see cedar waxwings in flight and in our trees. They are vulnerable to window collisions and being struck by cars as the birds feed on fruiting trees along the roadside.
Cedar waxwings are “serial monogamous” – they form matings bonds that last one breeding season (from the end of spring through late summer). They reach reproductive maturity at one year and can live up to eight years in the wild. While categorized as a song bird, the National Wildlife Federation notes “their singing voices are nothing to sing about.” Their song is a high-pitched “sseee” call. The “waxwing” in its name refers to the brilliant-red wax droplets on their feathers which appear from after the second year. Scientists are not sure what the exact function is of brightly-color tips but assume it may be used to attract mates.
So keep your eye out for these beautiful birds – they are fast flyers (up to 25 mph) so you just might miss them as they fly by.
On June 10th, Old Rag Master Naturalists, including Judy and Alan Edmunds, along with members of Trout Unlimited, Friends of the Rappahannock and other volunteers worked with Shenandoah National Park's (SNP) Supervisory Fish Biologist, Evan Childress to collect the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) of brook trout.
The purpose of this project was to gain a comprehensive understanding of brook trout population in the Shenandoah. This was done by collecting water samples from over 80 streams in the SNP. The process of collecting the samples was an all-day project!
Volunteers first picked up sample kits at one of the two testing stations in the SNP. Along with their kit, volunteers were given a site number, a data sheet to fill out and directions to the site. Some of the sites were a long hike into the park and took some tricky trekking to get to the exact spot on the stream that was listed on the site sheet! Once the longitude and latitude were confirmed and verified, following the collection protocol, the volunteers collected 2 liters of water from the site and filled out the data sheet. After hiking back to the car, the water was put on ice in coolers to keep the DNA from degrading on the drive back to the testing stations.
When volunteers returned the samples and data sheets, the park staff used special equipment to filter each sample of water. Each individual filter was then put in a vial to be sent to a lab that will use polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to amplify the DNA signal. This will enable them to detect any trout DNA present in the sample.
The results of the eDNA project will be long lasting. The information that was gathered will allow park biologists to not only understand the health of the streams and the distribution of brook trout in the park, but will also help park biologists make informed decisions about future conservation initiatives. Evan’s plan is to make an interactive map where people can see the results from the places we sampled and to give a virtual presentation talking about what we learned from the project.
The eDNA project will be wrapping up this fall, but Evan is already looking to get additional grants to drive more projects that will support healthy streams in the Shenandoah.
Stay tuned for more opportunities to help Evan in the future!
Sycamore Grove Farm, Madison County
I clearly recall the first view of a wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) on our farm. We had just moved into the house that we built and were sitting on the back porch when a female turkey rounded the corner and started to walk down toward the woods line at the bottom of the field. She seemed to stagger from side to side, almost like she was drunk. So of course I researched it. Apparently fruit-eating birds including turkeys can over-indulge in berries. While berries are a good source of food, when the fruit starts to rot a bird can get inebriated. According to the Audubon Society, “drunk” birds tend to stagger from side to side, don’t fly as well, and aren’t easily able to avoid obstacles in flight. So maybe that turkey we saw had eaten a few too many very ripe berries. She finally reached the wooded area and that was the last sight of a turkey we had until just recently. We now have 3-5 turkeys that walk out of the woods to the south of our farm, cross the road, and then feed along the margins of our farm.
The turkey is the largest game bird in Virginia. We have friends who are hunters and they have told us our property is ideal for turkeys (we don’t hunt turkeys but like knowing we have the right habitat for them). Their favorite habitat is a mixed-conifer and hardwood forest. The land across the street from us fits the description of their habitat, as does the farm that abuts the back of our acreage. In addition to berries, we also have several large oak trees – and acorns are a favorite food of turkeys. Wild turkeys sleep in trees at night – so they have a choice of the woods across the street and the woods on our farm.
The wild turkey was hunted nearly to extinction by the early 1900s, when the population reached a low of around 30,000 birds. But restoration programs across North America have brought the numbers up to seven million today. Turkeys can run at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour and fly as fast as 55 miles per hour. The life span of a wild turkey is 3-5 years.
Birding tip: An organization called Birdwatching Bliss! offers lots of free advice, including how to use binoculars, what are the best bird field guides, available bird apps, and more. You can subscribe to receive information in your inbox each day.
Sycamore Grove Farm, Madison County
The Pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) is the largest woodpecker in North America. We have several on our farm and they are amazing to watch in flight. Their exaggerated swooping and their large body make them easy to identify. But they are not related to pterodactyls – they just give that impression with their size and “jack-hammer” approach to bug hunting. These woodpeckers live in Virginia year-round and, unlike most other birds, they will defend their territory all year as well – not just during breeding season.
According to Birds of North America (an amazing publication of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology), Pileateds prefer an oak-hickory forest with mature stands of dense vegetation near the ground. They have a long-extensible, pointed tongue with barbs and sticky saliva. They use their tongues to extract ants from tunnels in rotting wood. A pair of pileated woodpeckers needs a large amount of land – around 150 acres or more – to raise their young.
The Pileated, like most woodpeckers, nest in hollow trees or vacated nest cavities. They excavate only the entrance hole to gain access to the hollow interior of a tree. They often have multiple entrances holes, so they have an escape route if a predator enters the roost. We have not seen the Pileated’s nest site on our farm yet but we know it is in a heavily wooded area in a steep ravine at the back of our property. They play a vital role in forests like the one adjacent to the north side of our farm. They excavate large nesting, roosting and foraging cavities that are then used by all sorts of other birds and mammals. That can include wood ducks, bats and flying squirrels.
Scientists have noticed that Pileated woodpecker numbers increase in areas with widespread emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle that kills ash trees. That could mean that these woodpeckers could be one of the strongest lines of defense to control non-native forest pests. So leave those dead and dying trees out there for these wonderful woodpeckers. They’ll improve the habitat and attract all sorts of wildlife to your property.
Birding tip: You can often tell the difference between a Pileated and other woodpeckers by their drumming, without even seeing it. Most woodpeckers drum at a steady pace. A Pileated drums slowly, accelerating and then trailing off. And as Audubon notes, “their loud, escalating shrieks bring to mind a maniacal laugh. " So true!
Sycamore Grove Farm, Madison County
Following up on last week’s Bird Blog on blue jays, I wanted to share Atticus Finch’s quote on mockingbirds: “It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird,” Finch tells his daughter Scout. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.” While this doesn’t totally exonerate Finch for his statement about blue jays, it does capture the special essense of the Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos).
Every year since we moved into our house here in Madison County, we have had a pair of mockingbirds that own the immediate land around the house. The male mockingbird begins singing early each morning in the spring. He has several favorite perches, including the weather vane on our barn, the peak over our garage and the two large holly trees on the east side of our house. He will frequently fly straight up from his perch, then back down – all the while singing loudly. He moves from one perch to another to another, singing a lovely medley of songs – and sometimes I think I actually recognize which bird he is mimicking (or not). Mockingbirds also mimic other sounds, including crickets, cats and even sirens!
Once our pair of mockingbirds builds a nest, they actively chase other birds away. And they are very territorial overall – scientists and other birders have observed them attacking predatory birds, even bald eagles, when their territory is invaded.
Stan Tekiela describes their mating behavior perfectly in Birds of Virginia: “Very animated, male and female perform elaborate mating dances by facing each other, heads and tails erect. They run toward each other, flashing white wing patches, and then retreat to nearby cover.”
Birding tip: Mockingbirds eat seeds, insect, bugs and worms – and they will definitely visit your bird feeding area if you put out suet. But unlike woodpeckers, the mockingbird can’t hang upside down on the suet cage so they will perch on top of the feeder to have a snack.
Sycamore Grove Farm, Madison County
To Kill a Mockingbird was one of my favorite books, as well as the movie rendition. All except for that horrifying quote that Atticus Finch said to his son Jem who was just learning to shoot: “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want - just don’t kill a mockingbird.”
Blue jays have been reviled and persecuted by many different groups over the years. In Native American lore, blue jays are portrayed as thieves and tricksters. Their behavior has definitely contributed to their reputation: blue jays are known for marauding other birds’ nests, being bullies at your backyard bird feeder, and generally having an aggressive attitude. I have seen this behavior on our farm. They are frequently grouped with European starlings as “nuisance” birds. But they play an important role in the bird world. Stan Tekiela, author of Birds of Virginia Field Guide, says jays are “known as the alarm of the forest, screaming at any intruders in the woods.” I have seen this behavior, too. Red-shouldered and Cooper’s hawks frequently come to my bird feeding station, attracted to the numerous “meals” they observe. Jays are vociferous and loud when they spot one of these predators. There is a sudden mass exodus from the ground where birds were eating seed into the trees for shelter. So I am glad that the birds I bring seed to each morning have a protector in jays.
Joan E. Strassmann tells one of the best stories about blue jays in her Slow Birding book mentioned in an earlier bird blog. She points out oak trees are beholden to jays for spreading their fruit (acorns) far and wide. These trees rely on birds to be the major distribution agent, often carrying the acorns miles away from their parent tree. Scientists studying jay behavior found that these birds collected acorns, stored them in their mouth and throat, flew to a common cache area and buried them tip-first in holes so that each hole held only one acorn. While some were eaten, many acorns grew into trees. “When I hear that the Blue Jays have found a roosting owl or have become alerted for some other reason and fly through the neighborhood with their screeching warning,” Strassman notes, “I like to remember that they have airlifted the oak trees north in tiny acorn packages as the glaciers retreated.”
Birding tip: Audubon offers a wonderful online resource: Bird Watching 101: A Guide for Beginners. Even experienced birders will glean some ideas on how to improve their birding techniques.
The little things that we do every day have a huge impact on our natural world. It makes sense that native plant enthusiasts care about invasives, clean water, soil health, the warming climate, more intense weather patterns, even clean air…but what about dark skies?
Dark skies affect multiple natural processes. For example, many crops are dependent on insect pollination. If you like to eat, you care about insects and in turn, also dark skies. Insects also serve as a food source for many species. If you care about birds, you care about insects and also in turn, dark skies.
Why should we do something about light pollution? Humans “around 80 percent of all—and more than 99 percent of people in the US and Europe—now live under light-polluted skies. In addition to direct lighting from urban infrastructure, light reflected from clouds and aerosols, known as skyglow, is brightening nights even in unlit habitats.” (Kwon, 2018) Many, truly do not know what unlit skies look like.
In addition, insects are impacted by light pollution. The article “Light Pollution is a Driver of Insect Declines” discusses how artificial light serves as an evolutionary trap. Artificial light is a human-induced problem. Throughout ecological history, “most anthropogenic disturbances have natural analogs: the climate has warmed before, habitats have fragmented, species have invaded new ranges, and new pesticides (also known as plant defenses) have been developed. Yet for all evolutionary time, the daily cycle of light and dark, the lunar cycle, and the annual cycle of the seasons have all remained constant. insects have had no cause to evolve any relevant adaptations to artificial light at night.” (Avalon et al, 2020) Insects are attracted to the ultrabright unnatural lights and exhaust themselves before engaging in pollination or reproduction. The decline of insects lead to diminished food sources for larger organisms.
Light pollution causes disorientation and exhaustion in migratory birds. Birds use energy stores to make long journeys. Studies show that “migrating birds were disoriented and attracted by red and white light (containing visible long-wavelength radiation), whereas they were clearly less disoriented by blue and green light (containing less or no visible long-wavelength radiation).” (Poot et al, 2008)
The good news is that humans can put ecological practices in place to mitigate the impacts of light pollution. Further research shows that “artificial light at night impacts nocturnal and diurnal insects through effects on development, movement, foraging, reproduction, exhaustion and predation risk.” (Borges, 2022) It is estimated that light pollution is driving an “insect apocalypse” resulting in a loss of around forty percent of all bug species within just a few decades. There are multiple reasons to care about insects.
We can make an impact on this serious problem. Community members can have their voices heard by participating in their local HOA meetings and completing surveys conducted by the local government in the comprehensive planning phase. By speaking out residents can weigh in on light ordinances in public spaces. Even talking to neighbors who are unaware of the problem can help.
The International Dark Sky Association (https://www.darksky.org/) has great resources for educating yourself and others about light pollution. Virginia has five Dark Sky parks which are more than any other state East of Mississippi. The parks include Rappahannock County Park, Sky Meadows State Park, Staunton River State Park, James River State Park, and Natural Bridge State Park. The link to the parks can be found at https://www.darksky.org/our-work/conservation/idsp/finder/.
Visiting Dark Sky parks and taking part in citizen science is an important way to help protect these amazing spaces for future generations to enjoy.
Reposted from November, 2020
By Bill Birkhofer
Are you seriously considering installing a pollinator garden or meadow in the near future? Well, there’s no better time than this fall and winter to select, prepare and plan your site. Following are some thoughts to help you on your way or reinforce what you’re already doing.
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By Bonnie Beers
Reposted from November 2020
We wanted to create a low-growth meadow in a 3 acre area near our house. Ever hopeful and loath to use chemical sprays, we decided to give this former hayfield a chance to show its stuff. The site had been mowed for hay with little improvements for decades, at least. It was bordered on one side by a small stream and woods border, on a 2nd side by a deeper wood, and on the remaining sides by our driveway and the mowed/planted areas around our house. Along the woods edges, we found natives like sumac, dogwood, redbud, locust, pine and cedar, and hardwoods. We also found a patch of ailanthus, a good bit of autumn olive and some encroaching vines like Japanese honeysuckle and oriental bittersweet.
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Thu 21 May 2020 06.30 EDT
Deer, bobcats and black bears are gathering around parts of Yosemite national park typically teeming with visitors.
Earlier this month, for the first time in recent memory, pronghorn antelope ventured into the sun-scorched lowlands of Death Valley national park. Undeterred by temperatures that climbed to over 110F, the animals were observed by park staff browsing on a hillside not far from Furnace Creek visitor center.
“This is something we haven’t seen in our lifetimes,” said Kati Schmidt, a spokesperson for the National Parks Conservation Association. “We’ve known they’re in some of the higher elevation areas of Death Valley but as far as we’re aware they’ve never been documented this low in the park, near park headquarters.”
The return of pronghorns to Death Valley is but one of many stories of wildlife thriving on public lands since the coronavirus closures went into effect a month and a half ago. In Yosemite national park, closed since 20 March, wildlife have flocked in large numbers to a virtually abandoned Yosemite Valley.
More than 4 million visitors traveled to Yosemite last year, the vast majority by way of automobile. On busy late-spring days, as visitors gather to see the famed Yosemite, Vernal and Bridal Veil Falls, the 7.5-mile long valley can become an endless procession of cars.
But traffic jams seem a distant memory as the closure approaches its two-month mark. Deer, bobcats and black bears have congregated around buildings, along roadways and other parts of the park typically teeming with visitors. One coyote, photographed by park staff lounging in an empty parking lot under a rushing Yosemite Falls, seemed to best capture the momentary state of repose.
A handful of workers who have remained in Yosemite during the closures, who have been able to travel by foot and bike along the deserted roadways, describe an abundance of wildlife not seen in the last century. “The bear population has quadrupled,” Dane Peterson, a worker at the Ahwahnee Hotel, told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s not like they usually aren’t here … It’s that they usually hang back at the edges or move in the shadows.”
Similar behaviors have been documented in other national parks including Rocky Mountain, in Colorado, and Yellowstone, in Wyoming. “Without an abundance of visitors and vehicles, wildlife has been seen in areas they typically don’t frequent,” said the National Park Service spokesperson Cynthia Hernandez, “including near roadways, park buildings and parking lots, spending time doing what they usually do naturally: foraging for food”.
The human-free interregnum is rapidly coming to an end, however, as the park service ramps up its phased reopening. While Yosemite, Death Valley and a number of other California national parks remain closed, on Monday, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks – which collectively received nearly 8 million visitors in 2019 – reopened their gates for the first time since late March. To protect visitors and staff, the park service has hired seasonal workers to disinfect high use areas and installed plastic barriers at tollbooths, visitor centers and permit desks.
But few if any protective measures have been put in place for wildlife. The consequences of the reopenings
may be especially hard on young animals born in the calm of the closures, according to wildlife experts.
“Individuals who have lived in the national park area will likely readjust pretty quickly to the return of recreators after quarantine,” said Lindsay Rosa, a conservation scientist with Defenders of Wildlife. “But newcomers, particularly juveniles born this spring, may take a bit longer to learn since they haven’t yet had the opportunity to encounter many humans.”
Visitors to the re-opened parks should be particularly wary of amphibians, says Rosa, many of which are beginning their migration to breeding grounds. “[For them], roads remain a particularly fatal obstacle.”
By Margaret Renkl
Contributing Opinion Writer, New York Times
May 18, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET
NASHVILLE — One day last fall, deep in the middle of a devastating drought, I was walking the dog when a van bearing the logo of a mosquito-control company blew past me and parked in front of a neighbor’s house. The whole vehicle stank of chemicals, even going 40 miles an hour.
The man who emerged from the truck donned a massive backpack carrying a tank full of insecticide and proceeded to spray every bush and plant in the yard. Then he got in his truck, drove two doors down, and sprayed that yard, too, before continuing his route all around the block.
Here’s the most heartbreaking thing about the whole episode: He was spraying for mosquitoes that didn’t even exist: Last year’s extreme drought ended mosquito-breeding season long before the first freeze. Nevertheless, the mosquito vans arrived every three weeks, right on schedule, drenching the yards with poison for no reason but the schedule itself. And spraying for mosquitoes isn’t the half of it, as any walk through the lawn-care department of a big-box store will attest. People want the outdoors to work like an extension of their homes — fashionable, tidy, predictable. Above all, comfortable. So weedy yards filled with tiny wildflowers get bulldozed end to end and replaced with sod cared for by homeowners spraying from a bottle marked “backyard bug control” or by lawn services that leave behind tiny signs warning, “Lawn care application; keep off the grass.”
If only songbirds could read. Most people don’t seem to know that in this context “application” and “control” are simply euphemisms for “poison.” A friend once mentioned to me that she’d love to put up a nest box for bluebirds, and I offered to help her choose a good box and a safe spot for it in her yard, explaining that she would also need to tell her yard service to stop spraying. “I had no idea those guys were spraying,” she said.
To enjoy a lush green lawn or to sit on your patio without being eaten alive by mosquitoes doesn’t seem like too much to ask unless you actually know that insecticides designed to kill mosquitoes will also kill every other kind of insect: earthworms and caterpillars, spiders and mites, honeybees and butterflies, native bees and lightning bugs. Unless you actually know that herbicides also kill insects when they ingest the poisoned plants.
The global insect die-off is so precipitous that, if the trend continues, there will be no insects left a hundred years from now. That’s a problem for more than the bugs themselves: Insects are responsible for pollinating roughly 75 percent of all flowering plants, including one-third of the human world’s food supply. They form the basis of much of the animal world’s food supply, as well. When we poison the bugs and the weeds, we are also poisoning the turtles and tree frogs, the bats and screech owls, the songbirds and skinks.
“If insect species losses cannot be halted, this will have catastrophic consequences for both the planet’s ecosystems and for the survival of mankind,” Francisco Sánchez-Bayo of the University of Sydney, Australia, told The Guardian last year. Lawn chemicals are not, by themselves, the cause of the insect apocalypse, of course. Heat waves can render male insects sterile; loss of habitat can cause precipitous population declines; agricultural pesticides kill land insects and, by way of runoff into the nation’s waterways, aquatic insects, as well.
As individuals, we can help to slow such trends, but we don’t have the power to reverse them. Changing the way we think about our own yards is the only thing we have complete control over. And since homeowners use up 10 times more pesticide per acre than farmers do, changing the way we think about our yards can make a huge difference to our fellow creatures. It can make a huge difference to our own health, too: As the Garden Club of America notes in its Great Healthy Yard Project, synthetic pesticides are endocrine disrupters linked to an array of human health problems, including autism, A.D.H.D., diabetes and cancer. So many people have invested so completely in the chemical control of the outdoors that every subdivision in this country might as well be declared a Superfund site.
Changing our relationship to our yards is simple: Just don’t spray. Let the tiny wildflowers take root within the grass. Use an oscillating fan to keep the mosquitoes away. Tug the weeds out of the flower bed with your own hands and feel the benefit of a natural antidepressant at the same time. Trust the natural world to perform its own insect control, and watch the songbirds and the tree frogs and the box turtles and the friendly garter snakes return to their homes among us.
Because butterflies and bluebirds don’t respect property lines, our best hope is to make this simple change a community effort. For 25 years, my husband and I have been trying to create a wildlife sanctuary of this half-acre lot, planting native flowers for the bees and the butterflies, leaving the garden messy as a safe place for overwintering insects.
Despite our best efforts, our yard is being visibly changed anyway. Fewer birds. Fewer insects. Fewer everything. Half an acre, it turns out, is not enough to sustain wildlife unless the other half-acre lots are nature-friendly, too.
It’s spring now, and nearly every day I get a flier in the mail advertising a yard service or a mosquito-control company. I will never poison this yard, but I save the fliers anyway, as a reminder of what we’re up against. I keep them next to an eastern swallowtail butterfly that my 91-year-old father-in-law found dead on the sidewalk. He saved it for me because he knows how many flowers I’ve planted over the years to feed the pollinators.
I keep that poor dead butterfly, even though it breaks my heart, because I know what it cost my father-in-law to bring it to me. How he had to lock the brakes on his walker, hold onto one of the handles and stoop on arthritic knees to get to the ground. How gently he had to pick up the butterfly to keep from crumbling its wings into powder. How carefully he set it in the basket of the walker to protect it.
My father-in-law didn’t know that the time for protection had passed. The butterfly he found is perfect, unbattered by age or struggle. It was healthy and strong until someone sprayed for mosquitoes, or weeds, and killed it, too.
Washington Post, April 15, 2020
RIO DE JANEIRO — It's not easy being a baby sea turtle, hatching into a human's world. Curious children, leashless dogs, oblivious joggers: The dangers are many. Some never complete their postnatal dash to the ocean.
But in recent days, environmentalist Herbert Andrade has watched hundreds of baby turtles mosey their way toward the water along Brazil’s northeast coast, unmolested by people or pets, unencumbered by anxiety. The beach is empty. People, fearful of catching and spreading the coronavirus, are inside. But outside, Andrade sees a natural world blooming.
“The whole world is under risk,” said Andrade, environmental manager for the city of Paulista. “But this was a moment of happiness. It was a feeling that nature was transforming itself.”
For centuries, humans have pushed wildlife into smaller and smaller corners of the planet. But now, with billions in isolation and city streets emptied, nature is pushing back. Wild boar have descended onto the streets of Barcelona. Mountain goats have overtaken a town in Wales. Whales are chugging into Mediterranean shipping lanes. And turtles are finally getting some peace.
Buffalo walk on a mostly empty highway in India last week. (Getty Images)
While some stories of animal invasion that have gone viral have been fake — turns out elephants didn’t get drunk on Chinese corn wine and pass out in a tea garden — the apparent resiliency of the natural world is leavening a global tragedy with brief moments of wonderment. For people. And, apparently, for animals, too.
“The goats absolutely love it,” said Andrew Stuart, a resident of Llandudno, Wales. He saw the goats stroll into town one recent night, and has watched since then as they’ve availed themselves of its offerings. They’ve munched on windowsill flowers. Convened in parking lots. Strutted down emptied streets.
“They keep coming back, multiple times per day, 10 to 15 of them,” he said. “They’re taking the town back. It’s now theirs. Nothing is stopping them.”
But beyond the short-term benefits that human quarantines have brought the animal kingdom, conservationists say the pandemic could be an opportunity to push for more environmental protections and create a safer world for animals. An infrequently uttered word is beginning to sneak into conversations among conservationists and animal rights activists.
“I am hopeful,” anthropologist Jane Goodall told The Washington Post. “I am. I lived through World War II. By the time you get to 86, you realize that we can overcome these things. One day we will be better people, more responsible in our attitudes toward nature.”
A growing body of research has suggested that the risk of emerging diseases, three-quarters of which come from animals, is exacerbated by deforestation, hunting and the global wildlife trade, particularly in exotic or endangered species. One of the major vehicles for the transmission of novel diseases from animals to humans are wildlife markets, in which exotic animals are kept in cramped and unsanitary conditions. They have been linked to both severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
Now countries around the world are under growing pressure to act. China, whose insatiable demand for animal parts drives much of the global wildlife trade, has taken the extraordinary step of banning the consumption of wild animals, and may do the same for dogs. Vietnam, another country with a large demand for animal products, said it intends to follow suit.
The U.N. biodiversity chief has called for a global ban on wildlife markets. So have 60 members of the U.S. Congress. More than 200 of the world’s leading conservation groups have asked the World Health Organization to take action against the wildlife trade. A World Wildlife Fund survey of 5,000 people in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia found 90 percent supported government closures of unregulated wildlife markets.
“Humans are extraordinarily selfish,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a Brookings Institution scholar who studies wildlife trafficking. “If they start dying, they will start taking actions to minimize their dying. The most impactful and consequential legislation always comes after the health risks.”
The impacts of the closures and crackdowns, if they persist, will be global, undercutting the demand that fuels illegal wildlife trafficking, an illicit trade valued at more than $23 billion annually. The ripple effects of enforcement in Asia could be felt as far away as Latin America, where jaguars and turtles are hunted and killed to meet demand in China.
“Asian traders call it the Latin tiger,” Felbab-Brown said. “They are using jaguar bones and teeth to produce elixirs. . . . It’s picked up a lot in Latin America.”
Mountain goats roam the streets of Llandudno, Wales, last month. The goats, who live on the rocky Great Orme, are occasional visitors to the seaside town, but a councilor told the BBC the herd is now drawn by the lack of people and tourists. (Christopher Furlong/AFP/Getty Images)
But analysts say the pandemic also heightens potential dangers for animals. Poverty and hunger, exacerbated by lockdowns and disruptions in food supplies, may drive more people to hunt.
“And that’s okay,” said Joe Walston, a senior official with the Wildlife Conservation Society. “If people are put in a position of poverty, and we have failed providing economic alternatives, they should be able to do that.”
More concerning, advocates say, is the possibility that people could abandon their pets, out of the mistaken fear they can spread the virus, or because they can no longer afford to feed them.
“It is more likely to increase pet abandonment,” said Marco Ciampi, president of Brazil’s Humanitarian Association of Animal Protection and Well-Being. “And the fake news is terrible. But even with this, animals will be in a more safe position, if we listen to the call of animals: ‘We are here, and if the environment is friendly, we are friendly, too.’ ”
“It’s an amazingly magical moment,” he said. “There are peacocks in the streets.”
Bruce Borowsky, a videographer in Boulder, Colo., was walking through the main pedestrian strip of the college town last week when he experienced that magical moment. Up near the top of a tree, beside a building, he spotted a mountain lion, asleep, back paws hanging down. Down below, Pearl Street, which normally teems with restaurant patrons, shoppers, and University of Colorado students, was a “ghost town.” Nothing was waking up the mountain lion anytime soon.
“I’ve lived in Boulder for 30 years, and I’ve never seen a mountain lion before,” Borowsky said. “And I’m a filmmaker and am outdoors constantly. Animals are sensing that people aren’t around much and are coming out more.
“We’re waiting for the bears to come out of hibernation and see how brazen they get.”
Along Brazil’s northeastern shoreline, Andrade is also seeing sights he has never witnessed. He has cared for endangered sea turtles for more than a decade, and has seen all sorts of calamities befall them. Artificial light along the beach especially confuses the turtles. They mistake it for the water’s reflection, wander off toward it and die along the way.
“For every thousand,” he said, “only one or two reach adulthood.”
For years, he has tried to teach people about the fragility of baby sea turtles — an ongoing effort he compared to a boxing match. He has erected protective areas around their nests. He has held events to show children why they’re special. Life was getting better, safer for turtles. But nothing compared to this: an empty beach.
For him, the beauty of it ached.
“It was a surreal sensation,” he said. “You see nature living out its role in this way. . . . Things fit together. We saw nature birthed without human interaction.”
March 27, 2020 by PamKamphuis
The Piedmont Virginian
By Joe Lowe
When it comes to abundance, the stars we see at night (approximately 5,000) shine dimly compared to the number of plant and animal species in Virginia’s Piedmont, which may exceed 20,000, although the real number — if ever known — is almost certainly larger.
If that’s surprising, it’s because the “big” species we usually see, like oak trees and deer, take up a lot more space in our minds than they do on a species roster. In reality, “small” organisms — fungi and insects, among others — represent life’s greatest diversity, numerically dwarfing their larger counterparts.
These organisms, big and small, are never far. On a short walk, we might come across dozens or hundreds. Pill bugs, sumac bushes, and crows, for example, may not seem terribly interesting or consequential, but the Piedmont’s flora and fauna — known collectively as its biodiversity — are an absolute necessity for the area’s human residents.
Working together, plants and animals keep soils fertile, pollinate fruits and vegetables, produce fresh air, keep water clean, and help regulate climate. In short, they maintain a local life-support system without which the Piedmont would be a wasteland.
Although most of the region may look like a model of rural health, we know that its plants and animals are under intense pressure. How? Because species like the Rusty-patched Bumblebee and Purple Fringeless Orchid are telling us in the clearest way possible: by disappearing.
And they are not alone. Once common birds like the Common Nighthawk, Northern Bobwhite, and Eastern Whip-poor-will are now scarce in the region. Other species are gone. Since European colonization, Virginia has likely lost 72 species. In the Piedmont, another 59 are in serious decline — more than at any other time in modern history.
Some of these species range outside of the Piedmont and their downturns can’t be blamed entirely on local changes. Their dwindling numbers are symptomatic of a much larger problem.
Human alterations to the planet have forced extinction rates into overdrive, reaching levels not seen for the last 65 million years. And if trends continue, half the world’s total plant and animal species could be facing extinction by the end of the century. This wouldn’t be a loss just for wildlife enthusiasts, it would be a loss for everyone who depends on traditional economic and agricultural practices.
Like biodiversity itself, threats to flora and fauna vary by continent and region. In the Piedmont, there are many challenges, but experts agree that several rise above the others.
Habitat Loss, Fragmentation, and Degradation
During winter, local Wood Ducks spend months living in frigid water, impervious to conditions that would send us scrambling for shelter. Even so, we dismiss the feat with four words, “They’re used to it.” But what happens when “it” — the circumstances that animals and plants are accustomed to — change? Like us, their survival depends on a few basic requirements: food, water, shelter, and space. And when these conditions – known as habitat — deteriorate or disappear, they follow suit.
In the Piedmont, this happens in several ways. The first, and most obvious, way is when habitat is destroyed for new construction.
While some counties do a better job of restricting urban expansion than others, this has not stopped forests and fields from being converted into roadside malls, roads, and residential areas.
New homes, of course, aren’t without greenspace; they have yards. But for wildlife, a well-manicured lawn, at best, offers little food, water, or shelter; at worst, it poses mortal risks when sprayed with pesticides, which kill pollinators like butterflies and bees.
Multiplied across the landscape, habitat loss has a fragmenting effect, breaking large forests and grasslands into a patchwork of small, distinct spaces. In the Piedmont, these usually take the form of isolated woodlots among surrounding farms. Although they may look fine, these forests lack the critical mass necessary to maintain long-term health. They’re susceptible to invasive species and other threats, and slowly break down as their natural communities deteriorate.
Habitat health isn’t just a forest issue. Given that farms cover much of the Piedmont, agricultural practices have a big impact on local biodiversity. Eastern Meadowlarks and many other grassland birds, for example, rely on local pasture for nesting sites. This can have deadly results, though, when fields are hayed before chicks fledge. Similarly, removing streamside forests and allowing cattle to graze and defecate in waterways is detrimental for aquatic species. The Dwarf wedgemussel, a freshwater mollusk, is already gone from Fauquier County, and eleven other mussel species are threatened in the region.
If you think you know your neighbors well after a few years, imagine the relationships local plants and animals have after living together for millennia. These connections helped form a community that has flourished, in part, thanks to a natural system of checks and balances, maintaining native populations at sustainable levels.
The Piedmont’s natural equilibrium, however, is in growing trouble thanks to the human-introduction of invasive species that don’t play by local rules. These species outcompete natives and multiply to nightmarish levels, upending the ecological fabric of our natural communities.
They come in many forms. A fungus from China, the Chestnut blight, decimated the Piedmont’s Chestnut trees in the first half of the twentieth century. More recently, insects like the Emerald Ash-borer and Wooly Adelgid have begun killing off our Ash and Eastern Hemlock trees.
Meanwhile, more than 80 species of invasive plants have besieged the Piedmont, sending destructive ripples throughout the food chain. For example, while caterpillars feast on native plants, they can starve on invasives. This means lower reproduction rates for Eastern Bluebirds and other songbirds that depend on caterpillars to feed their chicks in invasive-dominated areas.
Making things worse, invasive plants have found unlikely allies among our native White-tailed Deer. Thanks to human influence, deer populations have surged across the Piedmont in recent decades — and their impact has been dramatic. Not only do deer inadvertently spread the sticky seeds of some invasive plants, their voracious grazing threatens the health of native forests and plants.
Protecting the Piedmont’s Biodiversity
Despite the challenges, local citizens and organizations are actively working to protect the Piedmont’s biodiversity. Piedmont landowners have put nearly 500,000 acres under conservation easement, protecting it from development. But there is still more to do and plenty of ways to make an impact.
Create and Improve Habitat
Most of the Piedmont is privately owned, which means that landowners have a large role to play in protecting biodiversity. Doing so is probably easier than you think. For starters, next time you feel compelled to tidy your lawn, relax. By leaving leaves, saving snags, and mowing a little less, you can improve habitat for local wildlife. If you want to do more, remove invasive species and plant natives. Remember, when it comes to protecting biodiversity, everything counts: a single oak tree can feed and provide shelter for hundreds of species.
If you’re interested in a conservation easement or would like to improve wildlife habitat on your property, the Piedmont Environmental Council can help. If you own a farm and would like to protect streams and improve livestock health, reach out to the local Natural Resources and Conservation Service or John Marshall Soil and Water Conservation District for support. The Virginia Department of Forestry can also provide stewardship recommendations to improve the health of your woodlot.
Many organizations offer educational programs for children or adults. These include The Clifton Institute, Virginia Working Landscapes, Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, Friends of the Rappahannock, and Bull Run Mountains Conservancy. For more intensive training, sign up for the Virginia Master Naturalist training program. The Virginia Native Plant Society provides excellent online resources and the Virginia Department of Forestry offers identification guides to local trees and shrubs.
Volunteering to support land stewardship and citizen science efforts is a great way to get involved. Opportunities are available with The Clifton Institute, Virginia Working Landscapes, Friends of the Rappahannock, Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Leadership, and Bull Run Mountains Conservancy.
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