Thursday, December 25, 2014

Awake! Solstice Night at Longwood!

We have always been a family very in tune with the cycles of nature, of light and dark, warmth and chill. We sometimes joke (though we mean it very seriously) that our love for the outdoors and of nature is in our blood and bone. We reflect the passions of generations of farmers and seafarers, tradesmen and travellers, millworkers and miners, who all relished in the chance to fish, hunt, hike, and dig in the dirt. During this winter season, we visited Longwood Gardens not far from here, in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, to give our ancestral selves a nice winter's walk. In our family the month of December is a time when we celebrate all of our family traditions, immersed in the wonder of a natural year. Winter solstice is among my favorites.

The Red Bird Tree with the Ecologist and the Horticulturalist, and their Mom.

Celebrating the Yule traditions acknowledges our Scot and German ancestors who no doubt were celebrating winter solstice long before any Christian conversions and the Church's acquisition of non-Christian earth-centered holidays. Hogmanay, the ancient Scot celebration of winter solstice, was always more important than Christmas - and still is in Scotland and Cape Breton! The decorating of tables and mantels with symbols of nature, outdoor bonfires, street parties, and a shot of Scotch whiskey before sunrise as the long night comes to an end is enthusiastically observed by Scots. The Love family (Clan Mackinnon) was no exception - especially the whiskey-before-dawn part!

Indigo skies outside signal the beginning of the longest night of the year - ring the bells!

The German tradition of the solstice tree precedes the Christian celebration of Christ's birth by several thousand years. The tradition of the Odin's Great Hunt and the 12 Days of Yule were practiced by ancient Germanic and Norse tribes for as long as memory goes, and evergreen trees especially treasured for their miraculous defiance of winter's cold and the promise of ever-lasting life, were guests of honor at great feasts. These traditions play out today with the burning of the yule log and decorated trees both on the table top and in the yard. As a mid-winter festival, German solstice was a grand all-nighter filled with dancing storytelling, and beer-before-sunrise! They must have shared this tradition with the Scots! Though there is no drinking at Longwood, great tables are spread with immense beauty and attention to natural detail.

The Peacock Tree is the main guest at this table.

To our Amish neighbors here in Lancaster and York Counties, ideas of Christmas are simple. The humility and simplicity of Christ's birth are held as singularly sacred. The Amish do not decorate, and concentrate instead on family dinners at both Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is at these great feasts (on the food!!) that tables are decorated with holly, pine boughs, candles, and sweets. Often at solstice time, a few candles appear at their windows but they abide by the Second Commandment and avoid the commercialism, anything-Santa, and do not exchange gifts. They display absolutely no nativity scenes or knick-knacks that suggest images of holy persons or events. The Amish, Mennonites, and German Quakers of PA place Christmas in an unadorned perspective that fosters deep appreciation and meditation for the birth of babe in a stable. Even so, there were many German Mennonite folks on the walk with us this night who, like us, were in awe of the beauty of the trees.

A classic German tree features simple decorations from nature and lights.

N.C. Wyeth who maintained a farm and studio nearby in Chadds Ford, PA, used many German farmers and their family members as models in his paintings (a tradition carried on by Andrew). He often remarked how simple the German Christmas celebration was compared to the crass commercialism of Philadelphia and its spreading suburbs. The age of consumerism, he said, ruined the ancient traditions of winter.  I can only imagine what he would think today. Up until the 1970s there was a large local market for wreath-making and cut trees provided for city dwellers by German farm communities in PA. Today, sadly, Christmas comes from Walmart and Target, though many Amish continue the winter market tradition of making fresh wreaths and amazing holiday baked goods. Longwood tradition, according to a guide who directed us to the library rooms, maintains that greenery and trees all must be sourced from tree farms and nurseries locally. I was very happy to hear this.

Cardinal Tree in the Conservatory .

As our family toured the beautiful traditional trees displayed in the main Conservatory, we were awestruck by the huge 'red bird tree' decorated with large handmade cardinals. This is a big nod to the Celtic tradition - so our Irish, Welsh, and French roots stirred a little! This tree featured the traditional bundles of nuts and berries, symbols of hope for bounty, fertility, and a good harvest to come. Red birds, believed to carry the warmth of the sun on their wings that lengthened the days with sunlight, were in the form of Northern Cardinals, native to North America. Garlands of golden lights represented the unbroken cycle of Life, while twigs of birch painted silver and white honored the 'Month Following Solstice' - a month of new beginnings. I imagine, if he had been here with us to see it, the Red Bird tree would have been one of Pierre DuPont's favorites.

Grand Entry of the Conservatory features a very showy feather bundle in a vase.

Feathers and birds are important symbols for many cultural traditions of winter solstice and these were full-on throughout the Conservatory trees and displays! Native Americans of the Eastern Woodlands did not wear the large feathered bonnets of the western tribes, but used feathers in bundles of decorative seed pods, twigs, and greenery tied to trees in winter to symbolize the connections of sky and earth, light to dark, warmth to cold. The modern and very touristy 'dream-catcher' is a very distant cousin of the winter feather bundle. Our Eastern Indian ancestors were tying bundles in our hearts as feathers were everywhere! It's amazing how powerful the symbolism of feathers and birds are to so many world traditions.

German blown-glass ornaments intensified the shimmer and splash of twinkling lights.

The ancient symbolism may have been missed by most who visited Longwood on Solstice Night, but the displays were filled to the brim with colors and forms that acknowledged our ancestral ties to the winter season. I heard one guest exclaim that there were no nativity scenes! Honestly, I am glad there were no religious displays, and I can count on Longwood to not have anything of the sort. It is immensely beautiful to celebrate the beauty of nature and the old traditions without any religious inferences. Our family celebrates all of the winter traditions and Longwood serves up the month-long celebration in great heaping bowls of beauty. Thanks for another year of bringing Light and Life to our family of so many traditions, especially for honoring our love of Nature in such spectacular ways!

The Avenue of Trees.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

MD: Passing Time - Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

"We come and we go," say the Amish, regarding the cycle of life and death where humans and human activity is simply part of the Big Story. Encouraged to take a planned trip to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge by a friend with whom I had had tried cancel on, I reluctantly left home early Saturday morning waiting to hear word of a beloved one's passing. "She will go in her own time and it makes no sense to sit around waiting," said Ed, "Let's go and think about passing time as a theme for our trip."

First bird of the day upon entering the refuge - Yellow-Rumped Warbler.

Ed is an old friend from my DNR days. He retired years ago and hunts Sika deer on his property on the Eastern Shore of Maryland this time of year. We've been birding buddies since my children were small and we try to meet up every winter to watch birds on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. He planned to hunt in the afternoon, which would leave all morning to bird together. Reluctantly  I followed him down, and felt better about my decision as the miles rolled by. From the back I could see his truck was packed to stay a week on his hunting property. This is his last hunt before moving to Florida. I'll miss him. The drive took three hours and I had a lot of time to think about our theme.

Bald Eagle, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Dorchester County, MD

It's always interesting to go bird watching with a philosopher. Ed became one doing his job with the state working in parks inventory and the armory. I remember the day he handed me my first sidearm, a S&W 35 cal. revolver (!) and Brown belt. Sometimes we laugh so hard about my rookie days that I cry. I left that job too soon, and to this day miss it, but could not bear an abusive supervisor or the system that protected him. Such is life. Time passes, things and people change, but the good 'ole boy system seems to have the most difficult time evolving.

A young turkey vulture balances on a twig barely big enough to support him.

We birded hard until eleven, tallying twenty five species before ten. The wind came up, so many birds hunkered down. We talked a lot about things passing, dying and being born, saving what we can, letting go of things we can't hold on to. As an ecologist who studies vulnerable socio-ecological systems  I found our discussion of crashed populations of bald eagles in the 50s and 60s, and the restorations of these birds as targeted species of national environmental policy responses in the 70s, to be enlightening and encouraging.  There were so many bald eagles (we walked the wildlife drive portion of the refuge rather than drive) so it would be hard for a young person today to believe that they were nearly extinct when I was in high school!

Crows keeping watch over a juvenile Bald Eagle, all perched in salt-water-killed trees.

We observed many first year and immature eagles, so many in fact, that they outnumbered adults 3:1. We counted four adults and twelve young. "How close we came to losing these birds," I kept saying. "How wonderful that we have them today because of foresight and courage of people who couldn't imagine a world without them," he repeated after me.

Pintail drake and hen hunkering down in the marsh, out of the cold wind.

Looking quietly at the salt-water-killed forests that ring the marshes of the refuge, the result of rising sea levels and sinking landmasses, Ed shifted the sadness of the current scene to his learning of the "Hope Spots" in marine conservation. The nearest Hope Spot to the Eastern Shore of Maryland is the Sargasso Sea just recently protected by a multi-national pact. That multiple nations even came together to work towards the long-term protection of this Atlantic ocean ecosystem is a huge step towards global conservation thinking. (1)  Ed is hoping to get more involved in marine conservation when he moves to Florida.

Salt-water-killed forests ring Blackwater's vast marshes.

If nations can work together at that scale, I asked, why can't they reign in large corporate abuses of marine and terrestrial landscapes that exploit natural resources and degrade planetary biogeochemical systems? With this question, we watched our new residents - white pelicans preening on their favorite mudbank, a mud bar that used to be marshland. No discussion. Just watching. Another birdwatcher walked up to take a look and he worried for the pelicans, blown hundreds of miles east on a strong winter storm a year ago. "How will they survive here?" Ed responded that they'd already weathered one of the coldest winters we'd seen in decades so maybe they be here a few years more? I wonder if they will remain longer. Are their numbers sufficient to attempt breeding here?

Storm-blown white pelicans continue to make a home at Blackwater.

Time soon came when Ed had to leave. The short days of December are marked in lengthening shadows before noon: time to get ready to climb the tree stand. I waited for my sister who lives nearby  to join me for a few more hours of exploring. The wind had really kicked up, so when she arrived we decided to head into the woods to look for Delmarva Fox Squirrels, recently de-listed from endangered status in Maryland. The woods were downright warm compared to my morning walk with Ed. We came across lots of forest litter duff digs and looked up to see several very large squirrel nests.

Fox squirrel signs -  digging in the duff to retrieve or bury acorns, nuts, pine seeds, even mushrooms.

It wasn't long before a giant squirrel came bounding across our path. This is only the second time I've seen a Delmarva fox squirrel and just like the first time, I was unprepared for its size! This is one huge squirrel! I estimated this one to be every ounce of three solid pounds.There are fox squirrels in the south, and when I worked in South Carolina I would see them with their dark masks, yellow bellies, and brown-black coats quite frequently. But the Delmarva fox squirrel, however, wears no mask, nor has a yellow belly, though it may have a black chinstrap or snout band, a cap of black. It simply looks like enormous but slightly darker grey squirrel that moves a lot slower and is rather intimidating as it glares back at you!

Delmarva Fox Squirrel.

Darker, heavier, and not as dainty as the Eastern grey squirrel, he sports a thick steel gray coat and a huge fluffy tail. In my estimations, two little grey squirrels could have easily have hidden in that enormous tail! One man, Guy Wiley, Sr., is responsible for the comeback of this endemic mammal and I am again inspired by the work of one person to prevent the disappearance of a wild animal.  Guy has a rare gift for long-term vision and eventually attracted people who believed in his idea to relocate almost 300 squirrels to Blackwater NWR. He was a worker at the refuge for thirty years, now retired and living in Cambridge near my sister. He saw the landscape without the fox squirrel, like me seeing the Susquehanna of my youth without her eagles, and decided that he didn't like it - not one bit. He risked a lot by approaching neighbors and landowners who at first scoffed at his idea of saving the big squirrels, but soon enough folks were letting him relocate squirrels from their properties to the refuge where they would be safe from traffic, logging, and hunting pressure. He's now in his eighties and I would sure like to talk to him about how he convinced a whole region that this was the right thing to do.

Mixed loblolly pine and deciduous forest is prime Delmarva habitat.

Blackwater now serves as a population source with its large protected land base where the squirrel can continue to recover. Maryland's DNR recently de-listed the animal saying that it is 28% recovered across its original Delmarva range. The Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage  program, however, disagrees with the decision to de-list. ""If you thought you had a 28 percent chance of passing an exam or of holding onto your job, you [wouldn't] say, 'Hey, this is Easy Street!'" Director Ned Gerber told The Baltimore Sun. "It's too soon." Many folks say that de-listing now has removed critical protections for its continued recovery. (2)

Downy woodpecker on a young maple.

Despite disagreements concerning policy decisions to de-list the fox squirrel, the project is a long term recovery effort and Blackwater NWR and the State are committed to it. Guy's foresight and determination to trap and relocate squirrels to the refuge ensured that the forests here are preserved as well. As we've learned the hard way, what is a forest without it's residents? The fox squirrel defines the forest it lives in and creates a tapestry of conditions with its presence.  As the source population spreads and re-inhabits other large patches of forest throughout Delmarva, many plant and animal populations follow it.

Song Sparrow digs in light duff at the edge of the fox squirrel woods.

By gathering and caching tree nuts and seeds, the fox squirrel in effect 'plants' the forest as he goes. He invariably forgets about some of his cache - as all squirrels do. He digs the ground, rearranges the duff, cultivates the surface for an emergence of plants that were otherwise smothered by decades of accumulated pine and litter litter. The refuge has reintroduced fire as well, using low heat controlled burns to clear out dangerous accumulations of fuel wood and debris that could lead to dangerous hot fires that could destroy forests and squirrels in short order. In ecological terms, the fires and the fox squirrel's activities release other living things to grow, which in turn release the potential of higher biodiversity such as dozens of bird species and herbivores that feed on the new growth planted and encouraged by the large squirrel.

Field sparrow (note eye ring).

Restoration of key species in its historic habitat takes a boatload of time and patience. When Teddy Roosevelt set out to create the National Wildlife Refuge system, he exercised at the legislative level something he believed in at the personal level: long-term commitment to conservation. The National Wildlife Refuge System, symbolized by the flying blue goose logo on literature, roadsigns, and websites, carries TR's vision forward with long-term management missions to ensures huge swaths of wetlands, forests, grasslands, and marshes are preserved for wildlife. Guy saw the need for improvement to a vulnerable population and recognized that once he started thirty years ago, it would take more than one human lifespan to accomplish the goal of a stable and expanding population of fox squirrels.He had the backing and support of refuge managers and the people who live throughout the Lower Shore. He still does.

Withered mushroom after a hard freeze.

Passing time in the woods, it struck me how the human idea of time is challenged by nature's idea of time. The trees we walked beneath were almost a century old. Following two intense rounds of logging in the early 1900s before the refuge was set aside by congressional act mid-century, three generations of humans have come and gone. The forest my grandfather would have seen here in the 1920s was simply not here, and where it could be found, it was not the same as the forest my sister and I walked through  this Saturday afternoon. Yet in a span of tree-years, this growth represented just one generation of forest life that shielded us from the wind. How will encroaching salt water, intensifying coastal storms and their floods, and a sinking landmass affect the forest and the fox squirrel in generations of trees to come?

Great Blue Heron of the Forest.

The loblolly pine, the signature conifer of the lowlands and coastal plains of the Mid-Atlantic, has weathered repeated pulses of pressure from human activity in logging and  clearing land for farming. A large ecosystem such as this can demonstrate resilience as small pieces and sections are acted upon by different forces such as fire, logging, and disease. But when pressures are system-wide and prolonged, the ecosystem - if allowed to recover,  takes much longer to recover and may or may not return to an dynamic-equilibrium state. Instead, it enters multiple unstable states and until time allows and keystone species are re-established, the ecosystem may exist only in a vulnerable state. Today the biggest large-scale threat to coastal plain loblolly ecosystems now includes human development to accommodate an ever-growing human population.

Tall loblolly pine bole.

Thick scales of fire resistant loblolly bark.

Scientists and conservationists wonder how the loblolly forests of  Blackwater as well as all the low-lying forests of the Lower Shore will adapt to rising sea levels and land mass subsidence. Inundation of frontal forests along the marsh edges is already dramatic, occurring as sea levels rise 3-4 mm a year and a post-glacial relaxation of the land surface drops elevations an 5-6mm in the same period. Will conservation reserve lands both here and beyond the frontal forest zone allow for the forest to migrate inland? Can the Delmarva fox squirrel, a planter of trees, be around to facilitate that migration?  

Female red-bellied woodpecker with a nut to cache.

I returned home and checked on our family friend via her son on FB - she'd had a good day. I wished them all well and felt better for having made the decision to visit Blackwater NWR after all. I know the next time I'm there she won't be with us, but she relayed that her time and passing will bring new adventures and new ways of Being that she is looking forward to. This gives me hope and makes me smile - as does a giant squirrel in the woods and a Hope Spot out in the ocean.


(1)  Hope Spots were defined by ocean conservationists as large protected areas of marine landscape. Google Earth/Ocean maintains an excellent catalog of these areas with many cool interactive features. ONe of my heroes, Sylvia Earle, narrates the introduction "Explore the Ocean" - and you'll need to download Google Earth to take advantage of this immensely fun database.

(2) Articles on the Delmarva Fox Squirrel - with cameo appearances by Guy Wiley, Sr. I'll be heading down to Cambridge to interview him for an article, but this is at least a short background about his work and the status change:

Thursday, December 11, 2014

DE: Winter Bears Down! Newark Reservoir

There is no doubt about it - winter is my favorite time of year! The birding in the Mid-Atlantic is fantastic, winter botany is supreme, snows come and go, and with leaves down I can see geological features and landscape structure that gives context and history to this region. Great flocks of migrating birds from the Arctic and interior of Canada descend on our marshes, beaches, woods, fields, and bays. It's a season that requires careful observation, patience, and preparation.

We bundle up for long stays in one place. Brrrr!

Last weekend I joined a group of DOS birders at the Newark Reservoir in Newark, Delaware. We walked slowly along checking hundreds of Canada geese on the water for rarities and uncommon birds. We found two cackling geese hidden within the largest flock on the water. Canada geese, the largest of the northern 'black geese'  that include Barnacle and Brant geese in North America, have several recognized races that represent unique populations from all over the Arctic - Baffin Island, Interior and Western Canada, Labrador, Ellesmere and Southampton Islands, Hudson Bay, Northwest Territories, Vancouver, and the Boothia Peninsula. It takes a trained eye to see the identifiers in a large flock of Canada geese that all look the same at first glance - but they're there! 

Two Cackling Geese, short, stubby bills, smaller body.

With a huge Nor'easter swirling over New England, the winds have been constant and cold all week. We received a few days of snow squalls and rain. With gusts roaring across the tops of trees, it's been hard to hear interior birds, although I watched a large flock of wild turkeys move silently out into the harvested soybean field to feed. Deer are everywhere.

Snow squalls dust the woods in white.

It's now that I can appreciate animal and insect architecture. With birds and bees long gone, kids love hunting for mud dauber tubes and paper wasp nests on rocky outcrops. Sometimes we can even identify sources of building materials the wasps frequented by the colors of the bands of chewed wood fiber and mud.  Bright orange from the osage orange trees and silty yellows from the wetlands.

Mud dauber tube nest in detail.

Out on the bay the rafts of diving ducks have been growing. The big storms are pushing them south along the coast. In a month there will be thousands of canvasbacks, mergansers, redheads, and ruddy ducks darkening the surface of the Upper Bay. Like winter foraging flocks of small birds in the woods, rafting provides diving ducks protection from predators, weather, and offers feeding advantages that come along with big numbers.

Canvasbacks begin to form winter rafts.

Studying rafts of ducks from a windy bluff overlooking a cold fetch of water or standing in a gusty snow squall in a field peering through a scope at massive flocks of grazing geese can often yield a wide variety of species and maybe a few rarities. We were lucky to spot a white-fronted goose in a large flock of geese at work this week, but I could never find it again to get a good picture!

Snow squalls and Canada geese - check each flock carefully!

The ground is still too warm to hold the snow for long so as soon as the snow comes, it goes. Walking along the sunny edge of the woods after a melt can reveal busy little flocks of winter associates moving as a flock together. The tufted titmouse and her mate always seem to be in charge. Wherever they go, the chickadees, kinglets, yellow-rumped warblers, sparrows, downy woodpeckers, brown creepers, and wrens will follow.

Brown creeper staying low out of the wind!

Golden-crowned Kinglet.

A tiny Winter Wren is just as cute as can be!

Yellow-rumped Warber follows its winter feeding flock.

Tufted Titmouse and her mate lead the winter flock through the woods.

Winter is bearing down. I keep gloves and knit hats in the car just in case a sunny day becomes a snowy, windy one. I have three field guides in my bag - my Sibley, NatGeo, and Peterson. I have binoculars on the kitchen table, in my backpack, in the car, and on my desk at work. Jackets, scarves, longjohns, boots, warm socks - all at the ready! I can hardly sit still when the season turns from fall to winter. Every day brings some new visitor or some sight that was hidden all summer. Get your jacket - here we go!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Watching Extinction Happen? A Crash of B. citrinus

There are some people who love to watch things go extinct. I'm not one of them. But there are folks who so dislike and abhor the federal regulations that surround wildlife protection - this implies federal control over what you can and cannot do on your property should a species of concern be identified on your land - that they actually hope and pray that things go extinct before anyone finds out they even existed.  Ignorance is bliss, and sometimes profitable. I count among my friends a certain business person who says "Hey, extinction is a good thing! It means I don't have to worry about some butterfly or mouse that no one cares about closing me down." That's one side to an economic argument for extinction.

Some colleagues of mine working on voucher collections to establish historic presence of species. Joan is a superb citizen scientist from West Virginia who can ID wild bee circles around the rest of us! (W. Virginia)

So what does a beekeeper think about this? Or an orchard manager? Or an architect who also happens to be an ecologist? What if the scientist is also a farmer: a commercial horticulturalist, or a sheep farmer, or someone who holds a PhD in marine fisheries while managing a very large poultry business? I know these folks, too. And contrary to my friend "The Strict Economist," there is room for the farmer-scientist in this discussion and the science can get pretty dense pretty quick.

Alex is a commercial beekeeper as well as a pollination ecologist. Bumble bees are not easy to catch in pan traps, so it's the old fashioned sweep net for us. (Adams Co. PA)

To say that a species is rare or endangered and on its way to extinction is a complicated idea with a lot of moving parts. It is also, for a lot of people, an emotional issue.  But let's consider the problem as a biological issue. Think metapopulation biology - the study of local populations linked by the ability of individuals to move across a large range. Also consider  population dynamics, something we don't even know much about in bumble bees yet.  As restoration ecologist and de-extinction scientist Kevin Kelly said "We really don't know anything about nature. But we do know that we have a duty to understand it."  I think we need many more young people in the natural sciences!

It's difficult to ascertain if a bee species is near extinction when you only have a relatively few surveys of relatively few sites when you consider the size of a range - even in a small state. We need more people to help with the field work!  (Delaware)

Within a metapopulation biological framework we need to consider the probabilities of extinction, that in the very big picture depends on what the organism is - a plant, insect, mammal. bird, reptile? So we learn that we have an insect in danger of dying out - a bee.  When the folks hear about this the conversation goes something like this:

"Oh. We're talking about a bee!" (Extinction is bad.) "What can I do to stop it from happening on my farm because - I need bees!" (Save The Bees!)

"A native bee?"  (Save The Native Pollinators! Say No To Extinction!) 

"A bumble bee?!" (Save the Warm, Cuddly, Fuzzy-Wuzzy Flying Teddybear!)

"Wait - you say it's a parasitic bumble bee?!!" (WHOA! A parasite?! Isn't that different?)

"It's a nest parasite to one of our most highly effective native bumble bees on agricultural lands? What the - ? Come on." (Oh. Definitely Bad. Let It Go. Extinction OK!)

Bombus Psithyrus citrinus. Photo: John Asher

So this morning as emails were a-flying with the results from the latest compilation of bumble bee survey data up to and including 2014, several researchers pointed out a startling crash. I mean, emails started really flying - and text messages - and Twitter. I sat at my home office desk shaking my head. The data tables showed that Bombus Psithyrus citrinus, the lemon cuckoo bumble bee, was not only becoming more rare over twenty years of survey data in all states but that this year there were no records of it at all. Emails kept flying all day. No records.

Bombus impatiens, the host bee. (Avondale, PA)

Cuckoo bumble bees do not produce workers of their own, but they do lay their eggs in the nests of host bumble bees, mostly B. impatiens and B. vagrans - pretty bumble bees common to our area. The host bee populations seem to be doing just fine, however, according to our survey data. What we know of this situation is that there is a big drop in numbers of collected B. citrinus across its entire historic range. So big that over the past ten years, numbers of B. citrinus spiraled down to zero. That's 0.  I am monitoring B. terricola, a species of concern across its entire range as well, so I always scan the annual survey reports and I know that some years are better than others and that in different areas survey results can vary from frighteningly low to doing just fine. But I've never seen a zero in any of these reports for any species.

I spent every summer weekend in 2011 along the Kancamagus Highway in the White Mountains finding lots of B. terricola - where they shouldn't have been! Have we been looking in all the wrong places?  (New Hampshire)

Is this event indicating widespread or local declines? We really don't know how widespread an extinction event has become until we know a species' full range. We need more people in the field watching - and if they are trained to collect and identify, we can learn more. I know a lot of folks who help with this sort of thing but they can't cover all the range in all of a landscape so complex. Additionally we just don't know if there are source sites of B. citrinus population that could re-establish populations in areas that have become sinks - areas of loss. If we find source sites can we put protections on them so that sinks can be recolonized? What if the property is privately owned? Do federal rules apply if an insect species of concern is found on private land? For a "just a" parasitic bee? It certainly doesn't have the charismatic  value of say a polar bear or an elephant.

Sam prepares to train another eager class for wild bee ID at the National Conservation Training Center in West Virgina.

I looked again at the data, this time a little differently. To compare this situation with a host and a disease, over time the host very well could develop a certain immunity to it. If populations of B. impatiens are strong, would this indicate that the host bumble bee has developed some sort of defense against the nest parasite? And if it has, will we see a bump in B. impatiens population?  Many hosts and parasites seem to exist in a state of equilibrium until the host evolves a more effective defense. In some parasitized but isolated populations in a fragmented range  there are cases of repeated extinctions of the parasite or disease over time  as the host develops defenses or immunities. Is this where we are  B. citrinus?  Are we right to be worried, or is this a natural high/low/zero relationship? If a natural die-out, we know, too, that populations of host organisms may lose resistance or immunity if the parasite has been out of picture for a very long time and when the disease or parasite returns (recolonizes) the host population dips in response. If this is the case with B. impatiens and vagans, will these host populations crash if and when the lemon cuckoo bumble bee makes a comeback? Oh, my brain! 

The Mid-Atlantic is a HUGE matrix of complex landscapes in which to look for a single species of bee. But if we are to find out what is happening to the lemon cuckoo bumble bee, we need more people looking! (Pine Barrens, NJ)

This parasitic bee is crashing. Should we worry? If it matters to us, what should we do? If we let "nature take its course" what are the consequences of letting the bee go? Three important things to remember while considering these questions:
  1. Scale matters. We need to be able to see in terms of metapopulations and involve people especially citizen scientists and students in the field work required to understand the dynamics of large ranges.
  2.  Local extinctions and recolonization happen normally and naturally,  because ...
  3.  Creatures, like bees, can move across ranges, and...
  4.  Parasitic species have dynamics of their own that we know very little about.


Fact sheet and distribution data on B. citrinus:

The following  article by Williams, Colla, and Xie (2009) - some of the people sending email this morning, describe important U.K.-based research in Bombus vulnerability. This is very interesting to me, considering the U.K.'s island-like biogeography, it's northern aspect, and that climate change and habitat fragmentation are "easier" to make actual parameters (unlike the big, broad, complex landscape of the continental U.S.) This piece gives an idea of some of the difficulties in determining species status through metapopulation studies and population dynamics:

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Crossing and the Climb: Adventure Day in Cape May

Adventure Day! Those words are guaranteed to induce wide-eye-ed-ness in grandchildren and the jumping-up-and-down anticipation of something challenging and something new! The Astrophysicist and The President were selected by their mom to spend the day with she and ply the broad mouth of the Delaware River via the Cape May-Lewes ferry.  Our destination: Cape May Point State Park, New Jersey. The challenges: learn how to walk on a rolling deck, look for sea birds through binoculars, and climb a really tall lighthouse,

Our destination for Adventure Day, via the Lewes-Cape May Ferry.

Walking on a rolling deck was pretty fun! It was just cold and windy enough that everyone except one other outdoors family were all huddled in the snack-bar. Seven us had two full decks to ourselves, although Duke the Brindle Boxer and his family did come out for a few minutes to visit with the kids. So did the Captain. Captains are cool that way. Both The Astrophysicist and The President quickly gained their sea legs and cruised around with binoculars and sketchbooks to see what we could see.

The Astrophysicist and The President snuggle up to Captain Joe Napoleon during his coffee break. 

This is the 50th Anniversary Year for the Cape May - Lewes Ferry.  It's an important route that connects Delaware to New Jersey via a ninety minute passage. Birders in our area (including me) take this round trip at least once a year to catch pelagic species venturing into the broad mouth of the Delaware River where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. Gulls are numerous and always worth the extra careful look for the beautiful but illusive Icelandic Gull mixing in with Herring and Ring-Billed Gulls in winter. The Astrophysicist quickly caught the gull bug and followed a mixed flock trailing in our wake. He learned to correctly identify the Greater Black-Backed Gull and the smaller Herring Gull by size and coloration.

A huge birding platform that moves.

As a mom and a grandparent x 5 (how'd that happen?!) its important to me that kids have big adventures outdoors. This summer The Ecologist learned to paddle her own canoe solo on a huge lake. Now her brothers are experiencing the open bay, a wild beach in winter, and a big climb; challenges that are just big enough for them. Including those challenges unplanned as when The President tossed a plastic juice bottle over a rail fence at the park. Mom insisted that he climb through the splintery rails  to retrieve it. It wasn't at all fun, but The President did what had to be done, and apologized for making the earth cry.  He rejoined the expedition as its leader through the back dunes on our way to the Cape May lighthouse.

Beach grass holds high dunes in place against the onslaught of the sea.

The Cape May Lighthouse is our destination through the wild dunes.

Cape May Lighthouse is 160 feet high!

We wandered around the dunes (on the trails, of course!) and visited the hawk watch for a while. This is the second to last weekend for volunteers who are manning the scopes at this large observation deck. They broke all records this year with over 100,000 raptor sightings so far! This observational data will be tallied as per species, sex, age, and time/date  to add to an ever growing longitudinal study of the incredible fall raptor migrations that happen here every year.

Temporary back dune pond fills up in spring and summer and rests semi-dry in fall and winter

The beach plum - cloning itself all over the back dune

The beach plum grew short and stout throughout the back dune area where we hiked towards the lighthouse. This native small tree is a favorite of the red fox who 'plants' the seeds or pits as he leaves his scat at favorite marking posts. Foxes will poop to mark territory as visual signals that a trail or patch of vegetation 'belongs' to a certain claim. We looked for fox scat in obvious places:on top of drift wood, near stumps, and at the base of fence posts. The President found two scats, um...poops...on a log. "Poop!" he giggled, having recovered from making the earth cry earlier. 

A piece of whale jaw - intricate structure for such a huge bone!

Comparing kid jaws with whale jaws.

I love visiting  the wild swaths of marsh, dune, and stunted pine forest that makes up this coastal plain peninsula, on either side of the Delaware Bay. It's all young landscape, being formed and shaped even as we walk the trails. And it's very flat. Averaging only 25 feet above sea level the idea of impermanence and the possibility of major changes during intense storms is always in the back of my mind. Cape May maintains strict conservation rules. Many residents know something about birds, native plants, ocean life, river and marsh, and are happy to share it. All residents, however, are aware of how precarious a home they have and land planners work towards maintaining strict building codes and conservation statutes. If only all coastal communities could be as aware.

The light - a beacon of safety for generations of seafarers, sailors, and merchant marine.

If there's a metaphor in this visit, it's the lighthouse. Cape May shines like a beacon of how conservation and human needs and wants can be balanced. There are no barrier islands to protect the cape from nasty storms, which we get plenty of here on the Atlantic Coast, so the importance of the high dunes for protection are critical.  And, unlike on some of the barrier islands up and down coast from us, this area has not been overdeveloped.

The WWII gun battery emplacement still stands - minus  guns - on the beach. No more U-Boats, however.

I really find repulsive some of the resort towns  that stretches of the Mid-Atlantic coastal shores unsightly and vulnerable to severe property loss and habitat destruction. Cape May folks understand that the dune system is their only defense against an angry sea, so it's cared for and protected. Around the peninsula vast stretches of marshlands have been protected to ensure that rising seas and battering waves are calmed by the natural systems best able handle them.  But on to the lighthouse!

We made it to the top!

We made it to the top of the lighthouse and we were treated to beautiful views of the sea and the landscape around us. It wasn't easy an easy climb for the boys though. The Astrophysicist who enjoys the starry heights of the heavens at night counted out the dark steps and the window-lit landings ("Pull Over!") and made note of the double-walled tower space becoming increasingly narrow. The President's pants kept falling down so the landings every thirty steps made for perfect yank 'em up stops. The boys were determined to make it to the top. And once there, a museum docent met us with a big smile, a warm room, and a short introduction to the light and the light keepers with photos and displays placed around the small room, where we all fit very nicely. Then - she opened the door out...

Cast iron spiral staircase the whole way up!
"This is the coolest place on Earth!" cried The Astrophysicist in the strong wind atop the Cape May Lighthouse!

The Astrophysicist and The President cautiously stepped through the door into the wind. They grabbed on to the thick steel rail and tentatively made their first circle around the deck. "Look! The ocean!" "Look our car!" "Look at all those houses!"  "The beach!" "The dunes!" and my favorite "Look at those white dots on the lake! Swans!"  Every few steps they stopped and shouted into the wind. People waved from the parking lot. The Astrophysicist squealed with delight. The President, now comfortable, toddled a few laps around.

Fresh water pond system and the pine forests beyond - North View.

Another trip around. They knocked on the window to say hi to the volunteer inside. They took turns going inside to watch the other make a turn around to peer smiling through the thick wavy glass. They looked up at the light and across at the huge tankers awaiting their Bay Pilots out at sea. "Grandma - Can the Captain see us waving?" No, but they could see the light, I said. "OOOOOO! They can see the light!" Then it became apparent to The Astrophysicist why it was important to see the light. He quickly inferred that without out the lighthouse, ships would crash into the beach and become a shipwreck. "Yes," said the docent, "And they have!" She pointed out where on the cape famous wrecks lie and where at certain times we could come back and see what remained of them. 

The small village of Cape May - South view.

We made our way down the long winding staircase after thanking the docent. We picked up Mom halfway down. She was hanging out in a comfy pull-over spot, high enough for her, thanks. Off to the gift shop where she picked out a beautiful book to take home and the boys were so pleased and so proud. We took pictures with the lighthouse and the new book.

Gathering up Mom on the way down.

With May The Magnificent Lighthouse by Nancy Patterson

The Astrophysicist could not be prouder of himself!

Birds we listed for the day included the fox sparrow, chipping sparrow, house sparrow, northern shoveler, ruddy ducks, greater-black backed gulls, herring gulls, ring-billed gulls, bald eagles, a merlin, cormorants, northern gannets, common loons, surf scoters, Canada geese, mallards, pintails, mockingbird, red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawk, and a possible red-throated loon, but I am still on the fence about that. No amount of studying the blurry in-flight pictures of the bird winging hump-backed with legs dangling beyond the tail has convinced me yet. Too fuzzy and too unsure, I won't count it towards our sightings.

Fox Sparrow

Northern Mockingbird
Female house sparrow

First year male house sparrow

Greater Black-backed Gull

Immature herring gull harassing a loon - diving!

Waterlogged common loon scrambling out of the ferry's path

Our day was coming to a close and we returned to the ferry terminal to catch the Cape Henlopen back to Lewes. Windier and colder, we first had a nice snack inside, then we ventured out again.. Gannets, loons, scoters, gulls, and cormorants glided along with our ferry, the Cape Henlopen. We played a game of Spider Man tag and snuggled out of the wind behind the great ventilator stacks on the top deck. We sank into the joy of another Adventure Day finished, happy for the boys' accomplishments; their brave climb up the lighthouse and earning their sea legs! Back in the car heading home, The Astrophysicist and The President went sound asleep.

Snuggling in the brisk winds of the open Delaware Bay, Mom and The President.


Cape May and its surrounds are identified internationally as an Important Bird Area (IBA). The Cape May Bird Observatory maintains year round programs for experienced and novice birders alike!