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.
Dark Skies -- Emily Byers
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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As wildfires continue in western United States, biologists fear for vulnerable species
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.”
America's Killer Yards
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.
JEFF COX, APR 7, 2020,Horticulture online
A few decades ago, I wrote Landscaping with Nature (Rodale Press, 1991), a book about gathering inspiration for home landscaping by going into wild nature and noting what was aesthetically pleasing, then finding ways to bring those inspirations home. I didn’t know it at the time, but I only had half the story.
It takes an incredible 6,000-9,000 caterpillars to raise one clutch of chickadees.
The other half is to create those natural home landscape designs with native plants. There are so many good reasons to do so, chief among them is the lifeline that native plants throw to native fauna, especially insects and birds. A true champion of this notion is Douglas Tallamy, a professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware. “You might think we gardeners would value plants for what they do. Instead, we value them for what they look like,” he says. He has worked to educate us on the merits of native plants and conservation that starts in our gardens through his books Bringing Nature Home (Timber Press, 2009) and Nature's Best Hope (Timber Press, 2020).
Most of us know some of the things that our plants do: produce oxygen, build topsoil, prevent erosion and flooding, sequester carbon dioxide, buffer extreme weather, clean our water and shade our houses. But it’s their ability to turn sunlight into food for all of earth’s creatures that’s supremely important, especially in the context of local ecologies.
One summer, Professor Tallamy did a simple experiment. He counted the number of caterpillars on a native white oak in his yard and compared it to the number of caterpillars he found on a nearby ornamental Bradford pear, an Asian native. “I found 410 caterpillars on the white oak comprising 19 different species, and only one—an inchworm—on the Bradford pear,” he said.
Why such a huge difference? Native insects have co-evolved with native plants. To avoid predation, plants load their tissues with nasty insect-repellant chemicals, but the native insects have developed ways to de-fang those chemicals, usually with enzymes. The Bradford pear is a relative newcomer, and there are no insects that have yet evolved the ability to eat it—except maybe that inchworm.
“In the past,” he says, “we thought this was a good thing. After all, Asian ornamentals are planted to look pretty, and we certainly didn’t want insects eating them. We were happy with our perfect pears, burning bushes, Japanese barberries, golden rain trees, crape myrtles and all the other foreign ornamentals.”
Then he pointed out the ecological cost. “If you have a pair of nesting chickadees, watch what they bring to the nest to feed their hatchlings: mostly caterpillars. It takes an incredible 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to raise one clutch of chickadees.
“What we plant in our landscapes determines what can live in our landscapes. An American yard dominated by Asian ornamentals doesn’t produce nearly the quantity and diversity of insects needed for birds to reproduce. We have 50 percent fewer birds than 40 years ago, and some 230 species of North American birds are at risk of extinction,” he said, citing the 2014 State of the Birds Report.
“By the way,” Professor Tallamy says, “you might assume that my oak was riddled with unsightly caterpillar holes, but not so. Since birds eat most of the caterpillars before they get very large, from 10 feet away the oak looked as perfect as the Bradford pear.”
He adds that since almost all native insects have specialized relationships with native plants, planting non-natives reduces biodiversity. For example, very few insects other than the juniper hairstreak butterfly can eat the tissues of the eastern red cedar without dying. So if we don’t include cedars in our landscapes, we lose the hairstreak. “And the only host for the great fritillary butterfly is the native violet,” he points out. “When violets are mowed down, we lose the fritillaries. And if we lose the insects, including spiders and moths, we lose amphibians, bats and rodents. Even the fox eats insects—25 percent of his diet is insects.”
In his book written with Rick Darke, Living Landscapes: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden, Professor Tallamy tells the story of the Atala butterfly, a native of South Florida that once thrived on its sole host plant, Zamia pumila, a native cycad. The butterfly disappeared as the cycad was harvested to near extinction to make starch from its roots. But in the mid-1970s, landscape designers rediscovered it as a valuable evergreen that could take drought and heat. As it started showing up in more and more South Florida yards, the Atala butterfly returned.
“Maybe it had been harbored in the Everglades or somewhere, but adding that single plant brought the butterfly back,” said Professor Tallamy.
Horticulture columnist Jeff Cox writes from his home in northern California.
The Virginia Coast Reserve is the longest stretch of wilderness along the nation’s entire Atlantic coastline. As it embarks on its next half-century, the Virginia Coast Reserve stands out as one of the most important living laboratories in the world, having piloted community-based conservation, contributed landmark migratory bird research and pioneered techniques for restoring critical habitats such as oyster reefs and seagrass meadows, the Virginia Coast Reserve continues to produce groundbreaking science and innovative conservation. Read about it HERE.
3/26/2020 Entomology Today
If you cleared fallen leaves from your lawn last fall, did you deposit them along the edge of your lawn, where grass meets woods? If you did, you might have unwittingly created an ideal habitat for blacklegged ticks.
In areas of the United States where ticks that carry Lyme disease-causing bacteria are prevalent, residential properties often intermingle with forested areas, and ticks thrive in the “edge habitats” where lawn and woods meet. While many homeowners heed the advice to clear their lawns of fallen leaves in autumn to avoid creating tick-friendly habitat in high-use areas, a new study on tick abundance in leaf litter says raking or blowing leaves just out to the forest edge is not enough.
“Our study showed that the common fall practice of blowing or raking leaves removed from lawns and landscaping to the immediate lawn/woodland edges can result in a three-fold increase in blacklegged tick numbers in these areas the following spring,” says Robert Jordan, Ph.D., research scientist at the Monmouth County (New Jersey) Mosquito Control Division and co-author of the study published today in the Journal of Medical Entomology
Instead, Jordan and co-author Terry Schulze, Ph.D., an independent medical entomologist, suggest homeowners either take advantage of municipal curbside leaf pickup (if available), compost their leaves, or remove leaves to a location further into the woods or further away from high-use areas on their property. “The thing homeowners need to keep in mind is that accumulations of leaves and other plant debris provide ideal host-seeking and survival conditions for immature blacklegged ticks,” says Jordan.
In their new study, Jordan and Schulze set up test plots on three residential properties in Monmouth County, New Jersey, in the fall of 2017 and 2018. Each property had plots at both the forest edge and deeper within the wooded area. Some edge plots were allowed to accumulate leaves naturally, while others received additional leaves via periodic raking or leaf blowing. These “managed” edge plots resulted in leaf-litter depths two to three times that of the natural edge and forest plots.
The researchers then compared the presence of nymphal (juvenile) blacklegged ticks (Ixodes scapularis) and lone star ticks (Amblyomma americanum) in the test plots the following spring. In both years, the results for lone star tick nymphs were inconsistent, but the number of blacklegged tick nymphs in the managed edge plots was approximately three times that of the natural edge and forest plots.
“While we expected to see more ticks along lawn edges with deeper leaf-litter accumulation, we were surprised about the magnitude of the increase in ticks that resulted from leaf blowing or raking,” Jordan says. Fallen leaves provide blacklegged ticks with suitable habitat via higher humidity and lower temperatures within the leaf litter, as well as protection from exposure over winter. Previous research, meanwhile, has shown that people more commonly encounter ticks on their own properties than in parks or natural areas. And that, Jordan says, is a major reason why he and Schulze have been evaluating a variety of residential tick-prevention strategies in recent years. Landscape management is an important—and affordable—strategy to keep ticks at bay, he says. “On properties with considerable leaf fall, the best option would be complete removal of leaves from areas most frequently used–such as lawns, outdoor seating areas, and in and around play sets,” Jordan says. “If this is not possible or practical, leaf piles should be placed in areas least frequently used.
Where neither of these options is possible, or where leaf fall is minimal, mulching in place may be a good option, since this encourages rapid decomposition of leaves, which may reduce habitat suitability for ticks.”
Twenty-Year Study Shows How Climate and Habitat Change Impact One Mantid Species
By Paige Embry, Entomology Today
Ask someone what they know about praying mantids and chances are they’ll bring up the female biting the male’s
head off during mating. It happens, albeit only about 17 percent of the time, but those deaths can be a surprisingly
useful tool when studying mantid population changes over time. It’s one of the pieces of information tracked by
Lawrence Hurd, Ph.D., a professor of biology at Washington and Lee University, during a 20-year study
(1999-2018) of Tenodera aridifolia sinensis, the Chinese praying mantid.
The results were published in January in Annals of the Entomological Society of America.
In the last few years, studies finding widespread declines in insect abundance have made headlines. Hurd’s
long-term study uses one insect in one northern Virginia field to show how such declines can happen. Although the study only followed one species, Hurd and coauthorsnote that the findings should apply to other insects and spiders with a similar life cycle.
For this study, Hurd made good use of his resources. He had an insect of unusual size (7-10 centimeters) that beginners (his college ecology lab students) could easily recognize and catch. He also had a nearby field beginning its natural succession, which functioned as a laboratory because the mantids couldn’t easily escape from it. No other suitable fields were close by, and the mantids aren’t very mobile.
Five times between 1999 and 2018, on approximately the same day in September, Hurd sent his students across the
field in a “skirmish line” to collect, mark, and note every possible T. a. sinensis. Hurd writes in an email, “I always
try to base it [the class] on gathering good, usable data instead of just make-work data collection on a question that
has already been answered.”
To assess the reproductive success of the mantids, they went back after the first frost to collect the oothecae (eggs
laid in a gooey substance that hardens into a protective case). They brought the oothecae back to the lab, weighed them, and then returned them to the field. For the oothecae found on the stems of herbaceous plants, that meant “tying [them] on with sewing thread run through the dried foam surrounding the eggs.” Mantids do well in flowery fields with lots of arthropod prey. When succession trends in an area lead to more trees, the population of mantids should shrink. Over the 20 years of this study, two-thirds of the open field area was replaced by trees, and the number of mantids decreased dramatically.
However, succession was not the only factor impacting the mantids—climate change was as well. When a Chinese praying mantid lays her eggs, the sex ratio is even. By the time the mantids reach adulthood, males outnumber females. Once mating begins, the percentage of males starts to fall, prey to the females as well as any other
predators in the field. Eventually, the females become more common. Even though Hurd and the students sampled on essentially the same calendar day (September 12, 13, or 14) each year, they found that the proportion of males to the total population declined from more than 60 percent in 1999 to about 25 percent in 2018, showing that the mantids were further along in their life cycle.
It’s no surprise. For the last 40 years the growing season in northern Virginia has gotten longer and the summers hotter, so the mantids both hatch and reach maturity earlier. This means that some eggs may hatch before frost can put them into diapause, leading to death of the young nymphs and potentially adding to the population losses caused by the successional change.
In 2018, Hurd and his students found only three oothecae. In the fall of 2019, he saw no mantids, and found no oothecae after the first frost.
This study demonstrates the potential double whammy of habitat loss—even a naturally occurring one—and climate change. Hurd writes, “People are becoming worried about having to include insects in the mass extinction episode that many (including me) feel is already underway.” He says when he talks about this, people often respond with, “‘We gotta worry about bugs, too?'”
Unfortunately, as this study illustrates, the answer to that question is “yes.”
Find this article in Entomology Today here.
Find other articles on declines in insects and biodiversity on the Reading Corner page.
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