Living Lighter on the Land

Squashing the vine borer

Chances are that if you have a garden, you have at least one squash plant producing flowers and fruit right now.  At the Armstrong garden, we have zucchini, summer squash, acorn, butternut, hubbard, patty pan, giant pumpkin, mini-pumpkin, cukes, and melons, plus a few heirloom varieties that came to me without packaging.  That's a lot of squash! 
As an experienced organic gardener, I knew to expect the inevitable infestation of their vines by an insect known as the Squash vine borer.  The vine borer has probably wreaked havoc in your own garden.  Have you noticed a powdery orange-gold substance near holes at the base of your squash plants, along with wilting leaves?  That is "frass," and it marks the entry hole for the borer.  This complicated insect hatches from eggs that were laid at the base of young plants by a rather pretty looking moth that more resembles a beetle.  The eggs hatch into grubs, which crawl within the vines and feed there, sucking the life from your plants.  They will eventually metamorphose into the winged adult, which will then lay more eggs, either this year or next.  Unless, of course, you stop them.
I found a number of tips to help you protect your plants from the vine borer, which I list below, but I find this method works best:  wherever you see "frass," slit the vine along its length about an inch above and below the entry hole.  Old-timers will tell you to then insert a crochet hook into the vine to pull the grub out.  I use a piece of wire coat hanger with a bent tip (needle-nosed pliers work well to put a small curve at the end of your hanger).  I generally find one or two grubs per vine.  Sometimes there are multiple entry sites, and every one of them will have a grub or two hiding inside.  To help the plant recover from this "surgery," I pack some nice rich dirt over the wound.  The plants rebound nicely, continuing to yield tasty squash until the mildew takes over.  There are few organic remedies for mildew, but I'll have to leave that for another blog post.
Here is what you can do to protect squash plants from the vine borer:
Discard plants that cannot be saved: Don't put them in your compost or leave them lying around, or the larvae may grow into an adult and re-infect your squash next year. 
Use a floating row cover, or tin foil, or pantyhose.  Covering plants will prevent the adult moth from laying eggs where you don't want them.  Keep in mind that a row cover will also prevent bees, or any other pollinating insect, from reaching your plants.  You might try covering just the vine with foil or panty hose.
Set traps to know when they have emerged. You can tell when the squash vine borers are emerging by looking for the adults, or by setting a yellow bowl full of water in your garden.  The moths are attracted to the yellow, and get trapped in the water.  When you find one in your trap, you know it is time to take action against them. It is also a sign to start looking for eggs on the stems.
Plant vine crops that are usually not attacked by squash vine borers. Thinner vines make unsatisfactory homes for vine borers.  Try butternut squash, cucumbers, melons, and watermelons.
Hand pick and destroy eggs.  You won't get every egg though, I'll bet
A second planting of summer squash made in early July will mature after adult borers have finished laying eggs.  Areas with longer growing seasons might have two rounds of vine borers in a single season, but in New York this is a good method.
Till the soil in fall. Larvae that are brought close to the surface should freeze in winter.  Make sure to kill any grubs that you find while tilling.

Are you my Mother? A Cowbird in a Vireo Nest

Have you ever found an active bird nest?  Most nests are temporary structures, meant to house only one generation before they are left to the mites and lice that accumulate in them.  Even the most intricate and pain-staking nests are abandoned, except for those of raptors, who may reuse the same nest year after year. 


 Songbirds generally build more than one nest in a season, either to house successive broods or because one is damaged or predated.  Because they are often hidden, either high in treetops or low under thick cover, the best way to find nests may be to watch the birds that use them.  That is how I have been finding the nests around the Armstrong Education Center this summer.  Monitoring their progress has been a wonderful lesson in ecology for my daughter and I, one that I would like to share with you. I was observing wildlife around the vernal pool  at Armstrong when I found the first


nest, which was easy to see at eye-level in a young maple tree.  I would likely have missed it had the mother not flown off as I approached.  She was drab and not easily identifiable without a good head shot, so I tried to find out what she was by using the contents and make of her nest.

Some species make distinctively woven cups nests, like this one, while others make mud-and-stick structures, and still others use only cavities (the holes in trees).  On this date, June 17, there was only one egg in the nest: whitish with a little brown speckling on one end.  Over the next few days, more eggs appeared in the nest, but I didn't see the bird.  On June 21, I took the photo above, in which you can see that one egg is different: it is a Brown-headed cowbird egg.  Cowbirds are parasitic nesters, meaning that they do not make their own nests.  Instead, they drop a single egg into the unprotected nests of other species, leaving the chick to be raised by its "adoptive" parents.  I hadn't seen the host bird on the nest yet, but she won't sit until all of her eggs are laid, so that they incubate at the same rate and hatch at the same time.  That way, the chicks have less time to attract predators to the nest before they fledge. 

I was concerned about the cowbird egg in this nest.  Cowbirds are big, about the size of a robin, and this nest was quite small.  The parent, whoever it was would have a hard time feeding that big chick along with her three.  Sometimes the smaller, weaker chicks are kicked out of the nest by the fast-developing Cowbird.  I used a website run by Cornell's Lab of Ornithology to match the characteristics I had observed to likely candidates.  I narrowed in on the Red-eyed vireo, a small forest bird that is very common in our area.

I had heard them singing all day for weeks, from high in the treetops, and I was surprised to learn that they generally nest much lower in the canopy, at a height of about 6 feet.  You might have read in an earlier blog post, Late Spring Serenade, that birds sing to proclaim and protect nesting territory, thereby guaranteeing a food source for their young.  I spied her on the nest on June 22, and she sat through June 26 (while her partner kept up his singing).

The saga of the Vireo nest was not lost on my eight-year old daughter, who once cried to me during a night-time thunderstorm, "can't we go put more branches out over the mother?"  She was determined to take action against the cowbird egg.  I tried to explain to her that human ideals of justice do not always apply in the natural world.  Cowbirds do not make nests, not because they are lazy but because they evolved another strategy for survival, and they simply don't know how to make nests of their own.  Without an occasional egg drop in a Vireo nest, we wouldn't have Cowbirds to enrich the web of life.  That is difficult to understand for a child who does not especially care about something called a Cowbird.  We went down to have a look at the nest.  The mother was not about, and I lifted her up to look inside.  Three chicks lay nestled within, pulsing with new life!  We could only watch in wonder at their fragile strength, up against such a tough world.


 On June 27, one of the Vireo eggs remained unhatched, and the Cowbird chick was perhaps twice as big as either of the other chicks.  The next day, the fourth egg had hatched.  The day after that, the Cowbird chick appeared about three times bigger than the others, and held its mouth open far above them.  There was a lot of activity at the nest, with the parents flying in to feed them, so we went less often so as not to disturb them.  On day four, July 1, there were still four chicks in the nest.  On July 3, there were only two Vireo chicks left, and they looked too young to fledge.  We searched the surrounding area and did not find any on the ground.  On July 5, just one week after hatching, the nest was empty!

We hope they all made it.  Red-eyed vireos and Cowbirds are two highly successful species in our habitat, evidenced by a second pair of vireos currently nesting by the Armstrong's garden in another young maple tree.  They have three perfect eggs in their nest, and the female is now sitting. 


Salamanders of Westchester County, New York

Salamanders of Westchester County, New York
The northeastern region of the United States is home to vast numbers of a creature that many of us have never seen: the elusive, generally nocturnal, salamander. Our forest floors teem with these colorful animals on rainy warm nights, when they come out from underground and stream hideouts to prowl for insect prey. Salamanders are environmentally sensitive creatures and are considered to be indicators of forest ecosystem health, but they lack a voice (literally) and exist mostly outside of our consciousness. To protect them, we must remain conscious of their habitat requirements and preserve the conditions that foster them as an integral part of our forest web.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation offers opportunities for you to be involved in finding and recording the presence of wildlife, including a Citizen Science project to document salamander migration routes. They recently completed an inventory of amphibian and reptile species using input from thousands of citizen scientists over a ten years span. The Herp Atlas of New York documented twelve salamander species in Westchester County. One is considered to be endangered: the Northern dusky salamander, which inhabits rocky woodland streams. One of the most common, the Eastern newt, is often mistaken for a lizard in its juvenile life stage, and for an entirely different animal in its adult form (see pictures below).

As an aide to you in your search to discover these fascinating animals, I will summarize key points of the natural history of Westchester’s salamanders. I will group them into two main groups: those that are most often found in or near streams, and those that are more associated with woodland pools and deciduous forest floors. Salamanders are a type of amphibian, meaning that they breed in water. However, some of our local amphibian species bypass the aquatic larval stage, no longer relying upon wetlands for breeding, and most species can be found away from water at some point in their lives. For help with identification, I suggest this field guide: The Amphibians and Reptiles of New York State (2007).

I invite you to join me this Saturday (June 29) at 10am at the Halle Ravine Preserve for a Guided Walk and Talk focusing on amphibians and reptiles of the area!

Salamanders Commonly Found in or Near Streams in Southern New York

Northern red salamander (Pseudotriton r. ruber)
• Found in springs, brooks, nearby woods and meadows
• In leaf litter or under rocks
• Lays 50-100 eggs in fall

Northern slimy salamander (Plethodon glutinosis)
• Found on forest floodplain, ravine slopes
• Under flat rocks and rotten logs (nocturnal)
• Lays 6-36 eggs in rotting logs or underground

Four-toed salamander (Hemidactylium scutatum)
• Found in bogs, streams, floodplains, associated with sphagnum moss
• Under stones, in leaf litter in bog forests
• Lays about 50 eggs singly attached to moss or plants, close to water, in spring

Northern spring salamander (Gyrinophilus porphyriticus) northern subspecies
• Found in springs and mountain brooks
• Nocturnal, may prowl in rain
• Lays 11-100 eggs singly attached to undersides of stones in cool water

Northern Two-lined Salamander (Eurycea bislineata)
• Found along rocky brooks, river swamps, also in damp forest
• Life history still relatively unknown!
• Lays 12-100 eggs underwater in one layer, attached to rocks or plants, in spring

Northern Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus fuscus) * endangered in Westchester County
• Found in or along edges of rocky wooded creeks, springs
• Lays 12-36 eggs in grape-like cluster near water beneath rocks or in logs, in late spring
• The female stays and broods the nest

Salamander Associated with Woodland “Vernal” Pools and surrounding Forested Areas
These species breed in pools but may be found on or under the ground some distance from water.

Marbled salamander (Ambystoma opacum)
• Lays 50-200 eggs in a depression in Fall which later fills with water
• The female usually guards her eggs

Spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum)
• Lives underground, may be found in hardwood forest
• Lays cluster of 100 eggs attached to submerged branches in ponds, in March and April

Blue-spotted salamander (Ambystoma laterale)
• Found in deciduous forest
• Lays 6-10 eggs singly or in a small cluster, on pond bottoms, in April or May

Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum)
• Found in deciduous forest, under debris near water
• Lays 10-20 cylindrical masses of 15 eggs apiece, attached to slim submerged twigs in ponds.
• Our earliest breeder, they migrate to pools in March when snow may still be on the ground.

Other Salamanders (and the most commonly found)

Northern red-backed salamander (Plethodon c. cinereus)
• Found in moist forest, coniferous and hardwood
• Lays 6-12 eggs under stones or in logs

Eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens)
• Also known as the Red-spotted newt, it has one of the most complicated life histories, having three distinct body forms depending on its developmental stage. Adults are aquatic and live in almost any unpolluted waters.
• Their eggs develop into a larval aquatic stage resembling a tadpole, which then undergoes metamorphosis to become an entirely terrestrial juvenile – little orange “efts.” These spend 2-5 years in forest litter and are often mistaken for a separate species from the gilled parents.

Late Spring Serenade

Late Spring Serenade

I have been settling into the swing of things at the Armstrong House for a few weeks now and I find my attention consistently drawn outside.  At any time of day, morning or night, there are the chirps, trills, and calls that signal nature’s most abundant season.  Who might there be, serenading outside your window? 

Don’t assume that your troubadour is a bird, unless it is morning.  As you probably know from experience, birds tend to sing early in the morning, with gusto, and then remain quiet the rest of the day.  Most sing only during their breeding season, late April through July, to attract mates and also to defend their nesting territory from competition from other birds.  A well-protected nesting territory ensures food for developing young.  Alarm calls (which are very different from songs), are used by either sex and at any time of day or year.  On a recent morning at the Armstrong Preserve, I heard American robin, Black and white warbler, Chipping sparrow, Downy woodpecker, Eastern wood-pewee and Tufted titmouse.  In the evenings, a bird called the Veery sings a descending ethereal tune.  Northern red cardinals may sing at any time of day, or year, in our area.

Chances are you have birds around your property, but they are not the only songsters out there.  You may be hearing trills from the Common gray tree frog this month, which many people mistake for a bird.  Tree frogs are nocturnal and generally very secretive, spending most of their lives high in the tree tops.  At this time of year, adult male frogs call in the evening (click here to hear it).  When spring rains fill their breeding pools, like our vernal pool here at the Armstrong Education Center, the frogs descend to lay and fertilize their eggs in the water.  Tate wrote about two other frogs that depend upon vernal pools in the May 25, 2013 post of this blog.  They were the Wood frog and Northern spring peeper, and peepers can still be heard early this month.  If you would like to learn more about these fascinating animals, join us on Saturday, June 29, 2013 for a guided nature walk  at one of our preserves in Pound Ridge, Halle Ravine.  If you have a wetland on your property or an interest in preserving these valuable habitats, please attend our Land Stewardship in Action Workshop on Saturday, November 2, 2013 (location to be announced on our website).


  • The Common gray tree frog lives in forest, even suburban forests, where vernal pools are present.

  • They can be gray, green, brown, or nearly black, and measure up to 2 inches long.

  • Tree frogs change color for better camouflage against tree bark.




Another source of beautiful music (to the trained ear, perhaps) are the insects.  Like birds and frogs, insects call only during the brief window of their specific breeding season.  So far, we have heard the Spring field cricket, a species of katydid, and a few different grasshoppes.  In other parts of New York, Cicadas are making big news (and big noise).  For information about the current cicada emergence, click here. Many of us associate these sounds with hot summer nights, but by summer, our current singers will be replaced by later-breeding species such as the Snowy tree cricket.  Their “chirp rate,” or song speed varies with temperature, and old-timers and naturalists can often guess the date by who is singing from the treetops.  Join us for a fun Friday night at the Armstrong Preserve,  July 19, 2013 for a guided tour of the sounds of Summer.









Watch a video of the Snowy tree cricket singing here

I hope you have enjoyed this musical tour of our local woodlands, and I hope it inspires you to spend a few minutes listening out your own window. Consider that each and every member of this chorus is integral to the great hum of life, and requires healthy, intact habitats to survive.  Rachel Carson, the renowned biologist and conservationist, wrote in Silent Spring, “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”  Like the taste of a peach in summer, these sounds can bring you back to simpler times and to a stronger connection with the natural world.

Your New Land Steward

Hi from Krista- Your New Land Steward: On My First Day in the Garden!

Hi, I’m Krista Munger, the new Land Steward/Educator in residence at the Armstrong Education Center here in Pound Ridge.  Tate is off to Alaska, and has passed his Living Lighter on the Land blog to me so I might continue to share with you tips, stories, and practical information guiding our work at the Center and in your backyard.

To introduce myself, I have worked as a biologist and educator in the Hudson Valley since 1997. 

I hold degrees in conservation biology and in adolescent science education.  From 2002 to 2005, I lived and gardened at the Arthur W. Butler Memorial Sanctuary in Bedford, NY.  When my daughter was born, we moved to Woodstock, New York to be closer to the mountains, but now we are thrilled to return.  There is an old saying that you can never come home again.  I have also heard, “never look back”.  Well– we have done both!    I am happy to report that little has changed, except that ground cover is increasingly dominated by invasive species like Japanese barberry and Japanese stilt-grass and recent storm damage to trees and soil stability is evident.   Tate addressed problematic invasives and methods for controlling them in his blog post on April 9, 2013.  I will return to the persistent dilemma of invasives in future blog posts.

                  The landscape of northern Westchester County is still lush and idyllic, perfectly suited for humans and for many kinds of wildlife.  I am afraid this would not be true without the tireless work of local conservation groups and their partners. In this blog and through our programs at the Armstrong Education Center recently started in the Spring of 2012, we go beyond the more traditional work of land protection to focus on human relationship with nature and highlight how our daily lifestyle choices impact local ecosystems.  We recognize that the quest to live more harmoniously with nature is never-ending, and there is much to be learned (and re-learned).

I experienced something like this on my first day in our community vegetable garden at Armstrong.  I had visited the garden previously on a tour of the outdoor classrooms  at the Center, and surmised from Tate that I should be prepared to hit the ground running.  It seems that no matter how much garden planning we do in February and March, the month of May is always a mad rush to get plants in and weeds out.  This is only the second growing season at the Center’s garden so there is more preparatory work to do than should be necessary in later years.  On first day, I was going to show how productive I could be.  The first order of business was to attack the mass of early spring arugula that had gone to flower.  Behind it, the kale was in flower too.  Greens that have bloomed have a bitter taste and are generally considered undesirable as they continue to draw nutrients from the soil and can drop seed where you don’t want it.  I ripped most of these flowering unwanteds out and added them to my compost pile.

 Then I noticed a bee–a honeybee from our own hive at the Armstrong, visiting one of the flowers I missed! (See April 2012 Blog Post).  I sat back and watched as another came and stuck its face deep into the yellow flower center.  It occurred to me that in my haste to ‘clean-up’ the garden, I had removed a food source for the bees!  Bees need a variety of nectar sources and are especially vulnerable to food shortages at the beginning and end of summer, when temperatures vary widely and blooming can be sporadic.  I looked around and didn’t see much else in flower aside from dogwood and an apple tree.  Their blossoms provide good nectar, but still I regretted my singular focus.  I wish I had thought more about what I really want to accomplish here: a working landscape that provides for the wildlife as much as for me.  This is the basis of permaculture and is one of our goals here at the Armstrong Education Center.

Our 2012 Garden Student Intern, Gabby S. described our intention best in her report.  She said, “our concept of an interrelated, multi-part garden is guided by the principals of permaculture, where garden elements work together to produce greater productivity and reduce waste.  Multi-part gardens are practical and sustainable since each part uses another’s waste as an input, reducing the need for outside resources. For example, instead of purchasing all of our fertilizers and soil conditioners, our composting system allows us to inexpensively improve our soil.” 

Tate drew up a schematic of the inputs and outputs of our system, and how they are related which I have included here.  The bees may very well have enough forage from the tree blossoms abounding, but I’ve still learned my first lesson on my first day of work!  I am going to try to be more thoughtful about the overall effects of my actions, in the garden and beyond!  This means that the focus has to be on the health of the interconnected natural web or system in my backyard and garden, more than on the appearance of things.  Please, if ever you hear of my unruly arugula here in the Armstrong educational garden, know that I am letting it go for the bees at this time of year!

Spring stewardship projects

The past month has been busy at the Pound Ridge Land Conservancy.  I've been knee deep in logistics preparing for a series of public workshops focused on planting trees, shrubs and flowers.  Now that the events are past and the plants are in, it is time to share with you our work.  

April 13: Stewardship in Action, Managing your meadow for fruit and wildlife 

During this workshop we took the next big step in our ongoing meadow management, which aims to revitalize the shrubby edge of the meadow with native and edible plant.  We planted 10 northern bayberry shrubs, which produce small edible fruits that birds go crazy for.  Over time these bayberry will grow into a dense stand to provide a zone of cover to wildlife between the meadow and the forest.  We will continue to plant northern bayberry along the meadow's perimeter until we have replaced all of the Japanese barberry that currently grows there.  We also planted an heirloom apple tree and two paw paw trees in the part of the meadow with the most amount of direct sunlight.  We chose these trees to demonstrate the productive potential of an open meadow and to increase the productivity of the Armstrong Preserve's working landscape.  These trees will grow to provide fruit to the occupants of the Armstrong House and along with the rest of the working landscape (organic gardens, chicken flock and honeybee hive) will supplement trips to the grocery store.  

Below: Alan Haigh, from the Home Orchard Company, planting an heirloom apple tree in the Armstrong Preserve's meadow      


April 27th:  Gardening workshop at Sara Stein's Garden. 

Before she died, botanist and writer Sara Stein lived in Pound Ridge where she transformed her ~3-acre suburban property into a diverse natural haven for birds, bees, flowers and native plants.  We used the Sara Stein Garden (now in the hands of a generous Pound Ridge family) as the backdrop for two gardening workshops aimed at incorporating native plants into your home's garden.  Led by local garden designer and Chair of Bedford Audubon's Leon Levy Native Plant Garden, Lynn Becker, these workshops were a huge hit.  Workshop participants toured Sara's garden before getting their hands dirty and planting new beds of bearberry, indian pink and blueberry.  As a group we discussed the advantages of gardening with native plants (for example, natives are well-suited for our soils and envionment and native plants carry out associations with wildlife that imported plants sometimes cannot) and shared resources on native plant purveyors.  We look forward to getting back to the Sarah Stein Garden for another workshop soon.  


April 28th: Replanting Carolin's Grove

Carolin's Grove is a 5-acre preserve dominated by Norway spruce trees on Stone Hill Road (Rt. 137) in Pound Ridge.  Hurricane Sandy toppled dozens of spruce trees in the grove and left big openings in the forest canopy.  Under these canopy openings we planting 150 small saplings which will utilize the sunlight reaching the forest floor and grow to fill in the forest.  To deter deer from munching on the new saplings we choose white spruce and pitch pine (both of which are not favored by deer) and placed most of the saplings in areas that the deer will have a hard time reaching.  

This new age class of spruce trees will add some diversity to the grove, which is currently comprised of similarly aged trees (all around 80 years old).  It is important to have multiple age classes in a forest to provide a variety of habitat to wildlife and to ensure that smaller trees will always be available to grow into newly formed openings.  In this sence, Hurricane Sandy was beneficial to Carolin's Grove.  We will allow the dozens of downed trees and branches to decay on the ground because they will provide carbon and nutrients to the soil and habitat to a whole suit of small animals.              

Below: PRLC board member, Jim Evans, plants a white spruce sapling in Carolin's Grove.



Next workshop?

We conduct our land stewardship in a way that is demonstrational, educational and exciting.  If you are looking to increase the value of wildlife habitat on your property, become more sustainable or support declining populations of native plants then join us on one of our workshops.  Look for the tagline 'Sewardship in Action' for our series on property management (next workshop: June 8th).  Check our event calender for event postings. Stay tuned!   

Biodiversity and disease risk

Lets think of all the mammals that currently inhabit Pound Ridge, NY: chipmunk, grey squirrel, mice, vole, groundhogs, moles, opossum, cottontail rabbit, raccoon, red fox, gray fox, bobcat, mink, white tailed deer, bats, coyote and bear.  Now think of the additional mammals that were here before the eastern forests were cut down: there were mountain lion, wolf, porcupines, beaver, woodland elk and weasels of all sizes.  When you stop to list them all, this diversity seems impressive.  It should be obvious this wildlife diversity varies greatly from place to place and depends on the presence of suitable habitat.

Consider our Lower Hudson/ Southern New England/ NY Metro region and all of the landscape pieces that make it up.  We have cities, state parks, county parks, small lot suburbs, large lot suburbs, farms of all sizes, pasture, orchards, wooded wetlands, lakes, ponds, rives, stream, town centers, tree farms, and (thanks to groups like PRLC) small nature preserves.  As you can see, there are a lot of different places for our mammals to live and each of these landscape pieces support a unique diversity of mammals.  
For example, the diversity of mammals in Van Cortland Park  is expected to be lower than that in Ward Pound Ridge Reservation.  Certain mammals need large tracts of land on which to roam (bobcat, for example), while other animals do fine in a heavily fragmented suburban setting (such as the white footed mouse).

Here is the $64,000 question: does a place’s diversity affect how that place functions?  For years Dr. Richard S. Ostfeld from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies has been asking this question.  Specifically, Dr. Ostfeld studies the ecological components that contribute to Lyme disease risk across the tri-state region.  His findings are shocking!  In a nutshell, here is what he has concluded:

First, a bit of background:

Back legged ticks (Ixodes scapularis) carry a spirochete (Borrelia burgdorfii) which, when entered into humans through a bite, causes Lyme disease.  These ticks are not born with the spirochete, they must pick it up from a vertebrate (commonly a bird or mammal) during a blood meal.  The animal that initially gives the spirochete to the tick is called a reservoir.  Just stop here for a second.  This is an important piece to understand.  Without the reservoirs, ticks in Pound Ridge wouldn’t carry the spirochete that causes Lyme disease.  It is the reservoirs that keep infecting new generations of ticks with the infectious spirochete.    

Now on to Dr. Ostfeld’s research.  He has found that:
1) Not all potential reservoirs are equally good at giving the spirochete to ticks.  Specifically, ticks that feed on white footed mice are very likely to obtain the spirochete during their blood meal, whereas ticks on opossum are much less likely to obtain the spirochete. (*The reason behind this is not totally understood but it likely has to do with the reservoir’s immune system*).  This means that we would be better off with less mice and more opossums.  There’s more.

This cartoon shows the differences between two disease reservoirs

2) Reservoirs vary in the amount of ticks that they carry.  Specifically, the average mouse carries roughly 50 ticks whereas the average squirrel carries roughly 150.

3) Reservoirs vary in the amount of ticks that they remove from their body.  Specifically, mice remove far fewer ticks from their body than opossums.

A white footed mouse with an ear full of ticks

4) A tick’s chances of surviving the winter (an important component of their life cycle and therefore, disease transmission) depends on where it obtained its pre-winter blood meal.  Specifically, mice-fed ticks survive the winter better than opossum and squirrel-fed ticks.

From these findings we begin to realize that it matters very much which animal an uninfected tick feeds on.  Now on to the question of diversity.  If it matters which animals an uninfected tick feeds on and we know that different places have different groups of animals and levels of diversity, can we then begin to predict which places are more likely to have infected ticks (and sadly, infected humans)?  This is exactly what Dr. Ostfeld has done.

As diversity declines, disease risk goes up.   

Think about it this way: as a forested landscape gets fragmented by development the first animals to be lost are those that are long-ranging – animals like the bobcat and bear that just love to roam.  As we continue to whittle away at the landscape animals drop out in a predictable pattern based on their habitat requirements such as area, cover, and food source.  Some animals do very poorly in the modified environments that are now common throughout the region while other animals do very well.  You don’t see a lot of porcupines around your house but you do see a lot of chipmunks, right?   What Dr. Ostfeld has discovered is that the species that thrive in our fragmented and human dominated environments (specifically, the white footed mouse) are the most efficient disease reservoirs.  His research shows that as animals are taken out of an ecosystem (aka, as diversity decreases), the risk of Lyme disease goes up.  He also shows that as predators are removed from an ecosystem the number of mice (very efficient disease reservoirs) goes up.

For these reasons, managing for vertebrate biodiversity should be a priority.  Predators like the red fox and bobcat are important in keeping down mice populations and critters like raccoon and opossum are helpful in diluting the reservoir effect or Lyme disease.  It makes me happy to know that the compost at the Armstrong House is visited by raccoons and opossum!

More resources:
This book is a fantastic read on the subject.
Click here to watch Dr. Ostfeld cover a lot of this material in a lecture.

Time to cut Japanese barberry

Its official, spring has arrived: the pheobes are back, I heard an american robin singing, the leaves of the trout lily have emerged and I saw a red maple in bloom.  In the coming weeks the forest will green out and it will start with the Japanese barberry.  This shrub (originally from Japan and eastern Asia) is one of the first plants to push forth its leaves.  For someone suffering from the winter blues the early-spring color of Japanese barberry can be quite welcoming but unfortunately there is a downside to its leaves.  

It turns out that Japanese barberry is able to create a microclimate that is favorable to the black footed tick, the insect that transmits Lyme disease through its bite.  Under the dense shrub, humidity stays high enough to allow for active ticks that would otherwise have to burrow into the moist soil to escape desiccation.  This blog post encapsulates the recent findings of UCONN professors who say that managing Japanese barberry will reduce Lyme disease risk.  This blog post presents additional findings.      
Japanese barberry leafs out while most of the forest remains dormant 
I have spent the last few weekends removing Japanese barberry from the Armstrong Preserve.  Besides harboring disease-carrying insects, this plant is well known for being an invasive plant capable of lowering plant biodiversity and altering soil characteristics.  To read more about the plant’s invasive behavior read here.  Most of the literature offers a variety of options for barberry removal, from burning to pulling.  On the Armstrong Preserve I either remove the entire plant (roots and all) or simply cut the plant at its base.  Cutting at the base leaves the roots, from which new shoots will grow.  With this approach subsequent cutting is necessary to finally kill the plant.  Cutting Japanese barberry at its base has some advantages over pulling the entire plant, namely causing less disturbance to the soil.  Around our vernal pool I decided to cut Japanese barberry instead of pulling it up because I wanted to reduce the amount of soil that ran into the water.  Likewise, in areas of well established Japanese stiltgrass, disturbing the soil to remove Japanese barberry might create an ideal seed bed for stiltgrass.

If cutting is your method of barberry managing, now is a great time to get out your tools.  Hit the plant before it leafs out to 1) prevent it from building up a tick-friendly microclimate and 2) prevent it from photosynthesizing (growing).  Cut every winter/spring until the plant gives up.  By continued cutting you are forcing the roots to resupply the shoots.  If you keep taking the shoots, the roots will shrink and eventually poop out.           

If you are facing Japanese barberry on your property, you are not alone.  It is so ubiquitous that eradication is not an option.  Instead we have to strategically manage the plant to prevent its spread, remove it from the most ecologically valuable sites and eradicate it where public health is most compromised (along paths and around schools).  The Invasive Project of Pound Ridge (TIPPR) is a recent initiative solely focused on managing invasive plants, including Japanese barberry.  TIPPR will be holding ongoing workshops and informational events to tackle the issue from a town-wide level.

This problem isn’t going away.  Take up the fight, at least on your own property.  

Hear them peep

Spring is slowly emerging…and so are the frogs.  Ever since March 12th’s warm rain officially unlocked winter’s tight grasp, I have been hearing occasional peeps and quacks coming from the forest. I spent a few hours this weekend in my waterproof ‘froggin’ boots cruising through woodland ponds (also called vernal pools) looking critters.  Here’s what I found:

A male wood frog floating in a vernal pool, March 23, 2013
In a pool behind the Bedford Audubon Society’s HQ I found THOUSANDS (!!!) of wood frogs (Rana sylvaticus) doing what wood frogs do at this time of year: float, quack and mate. These 2 inch amphibians live most of their lives on land but lay their eggs in water and rely on the safety of fish-free vernal pools to do so.  During the first warm and wet days of spring wood frogs congregate in impressive numbers in the shallows of a vernal pool and get directly to business.  Below is a picture of wood frogs mating.  The larger, pinkish female is below the smaller and browner male.  Both sexes contain a black mask over their eye, which helps in identification.         
Female (larger, underneath) and male (smaller, above) wood frogs mating.
Wood frogs have attained a good bit of fame due to their amazing overwintering strategy, which is described in the following videos.       
Funny video of wood frog freezing and unfreezing.  
Beautiful video of wood frogs freezing and unfreezing in Alaska.  
A good technical description of what the heck happens to the wood frog in winter.  
Another frog found in vernal pools is the spring peeper, (pseudacris crucifer) whose very loud ‘PEEP’, ‘PEEP’, ‘PEEP’ can be heard echoing from wetlands at great distances.  You have probably heard this little frogs before, but maybe you haven’t seen one in action (they are certainly impressive).  For a great look at the peeper in action, check out this video (I am sorry about the advertisement before this video – believe me, its worth it) 
Back at the Armstrong Preserve’s vernal pool, I found something that may rival the freezing frogs:  fairy shrimp.  These 1/2 inch – 1 inch long crustaceans in the Eubranchipus genus swim near the water’s surface and take cover as shadow’s pass by.  The fairy in the picture below is carrying an egg sack on her back, which will be deposited in the pool where it will sit for a year before hatching.   
A female fairy shrimp carrying an egg sack 

Vernal pool conservation
Unfortunately, life isn’t always easy for animals that inhabit vernal pools.  For centuries, vernal pools (and wetlands of all types) were seen as valueless to humans and were drained, filled and developed.  Thankfully, times are changing.  Now vernal pools (and wetlands of all types) are the subject of public interests, scientific research and conservation.  Wood frogs, fairy shrimp and mole salamanders (which I have not yet seen in my nearby pool) are consider ‘vernal pool obligates’ because vernal pools are the only known habitats in which they beed.  The future of these amazing animals would be critically imperiled if vernal pools were destroyed.  For this reason, the Armstrong Preserve’s vernal pool is protected, valued and used as an outdoor classroom to educate others about protecting vernal pools on their property.  Although many municipalities have wetland regulations on the books, vernal pools could always receive more protection.  Vernal pools are connected to the surrounding forests by the wildlife that move between both.  Any harm that comes to the nearby forest will be passed on to the vernal pool.  Forest and pool protection go hand in hand.

You and vernal pools
There may be a vernal pool in your backyard.  Do you hear frogs in the spring?  Is there a seasonally flooded pond in your forest?  This website will help you identify a vernal pool from other wetlands.  For a fantastic resource on vernal pools, their natural history and conservation, written by the region’s pool expert, Dr. Elizabeth Colburn, see this book.  If your property contains one of these pools, you can expect to spend many hours studying its fascinating wildlife.  Protect it, and it will reward you with its beauty.  

Microgreens in March

I am always interested in finding new ways to grow plants and experimenting with ways to do so on a tight energy budget.  This is our latest success story:  Sarah and I started growing microgreens next to our south-facing bedroom window last week.  We didn’t quite know how much light we needed to grow our pea and sunflower shoots but we seem to have enough.  We are very happy to report that we didn’t need a grow light.  The pictures below show a few of the stages.  

Day 5.  Little baby pea shoots opening their first set of seed leaves or ‘cotyledons’.  

Day 5.  A cute little sunflower shoot.  

Day 10.  Two trays of microgreens.  Pea shoots on the left and sunflower shoots on the right.  

Day 15.  Post harvest.  Our microgreens aren’t so ‘micro’ anymore.    

There has been an increasing hype around microgreens recently as they have been said to contain tons of nutrients.  In a quick internet search, I discovered that there is some debate about just how healthy microgreens are.  This NPR article refers to an August 2012 study out of the University of Maryland that concludes that microgreens contain more nutrients than mature leaves of the same plant.  This source (scroll to the bottom of the page) contests the researcher’s experimental design and remains skeptical about their findings.  Here is some info about the August 2012 study, which was the first of its kind.  Apparently, claims made before the University of Maryland study was conducted (and there are alot of them) were not based on evidence.

Well, I for one don’t need too many nutrient-based reasons to grow microgreens in my bedroom in March.  Vegetables are good for you (no matter how ‘micro’ or ‘macro’ they are) and growing them at home reduces my carbon footprint.  Seems like a no brainer to me.      

If you are interested in growing microgreens at your own home you can check out A good how-to guide for growing micro greens.

At the Armstrong Education Center I am likely to continue growing microgreens because they are mobile (just pick up the tray!), taste great and (some say) nutritious.  I will have no trouble growing them in the long days of summer and now I know that I can always throw them in front of a south facing window in late fall and early spring.  Happy growing!    

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