Dry Winter, Dry Spring, Dry Summer

Erie County (NY) is officially in a severe drought.  With record low snows this past Winter, an unusually dry Spring and nearly rainless Summer, Erie County, especially the metropolitan ring of Buffalo, is experiencing some of the driest conditions in over 75 years. For the Spring/Summer season thus far, we are down 7 inches in precipitation with no relief in site for the foreseeable future.  While we do have a nice big lake to our west, many folks in our region rely upon well water.

Wild Black Raspberries

Moreover, this drought is extremely stressful for plants and, therefore, animals. On The Acre, we usually tend to the “formal” flower beds and vegetables (very conservatively, mind you) and leave the naturalized areas to fend for themselves. But the newer natives put in for habitat restoration are having a very difficult time of it so we’re beginning to irrigate small patches in order that some survive into future seasons. Even the well-established wild raspberries are in rough shape. These small, dry fruits are all we’ll harvest this year, choosing to leave the paltry remains for wildlife, giving them another source of moisture. The berries testify to the intensity of this drought – we usually harvest about 5 pounds each year and leave 5 times that much for wildlife.

Perhaps it’s time to open the sacred fire pit and start a rain ceremony. Ah, but it would be fool-hardy to have a fire in such dry conditions. Starlight and song will have to do…

Insect Pests? No such thing…

So many wild species struggle to survive in the face of human activity. Serious population declines over the last half century should instill fear in every human heart – we need these wild animals for our own survival.

  • 76% population decline in freshwater species
  • 70% decline in seabird populations
  • 68% loss of common birds in the United States
  • 40% of terrestrial populations lost worldwide
  • 40% worldwide loss in marine species

Humans, by-and-large, disdain insect and arachnid species, either fearing them or labeling them as pests. Reasons are, for the most part, based in ignorance of the value these animals provide. We call these ecosystem services and natural capital, functions rooted in Nature upon which Homo sapiens depend for our own lives.  Some of these, like the water cycle, are obvious to us – although we still foolishly complain when it rains. Also trees often get lots of credit for their oxygen production, however, when allowed to form a forest, trees up the ante on the services and capital we rely upon – erosion and flood control, water purification, lumber and paper products, etc., etc.

Insects, Spiders and other such animal species, however, do not get much credit for anything other than being “pesty”.  When one considers the full web of life, it does not take long to realize that these invertebrates are critical to all life on Earth. I might even risk saying that they are second only to plants in importance, which explains why they vastly outnumber all other animal species.

This 1st and 2nd place rating is no coincidence. Without plants, no animal eats – none of them. All food is based in the plant world – and many, many plants greatly depend upon insects in order to reproduce, be it through direct pollination services or the protection certain invertebrate species provide to plants.  Consider that approximately 75% of flowering plants rely on animal pollinators to reproduce. Of the over 200,000 species of animals who perform pollination services, 99.5% of them are insects, such as beetles, bees, ants, wasps, butterflies, and moths, or spiders.

Clearly we must educate ourselves on these essential animals.  We need them or Homo sapiens becomes extinct.  The factors that threaten invertebrates are far more than just fear and disdain. While we directly target some for annihilation with chemicals, others are being threatened by our use of resources – habitat loss, pollution (air/water/ chemical) and climate change being the top factors.

And our best-loved insects, the Butterflies, are not immune to humans’ insatiable use and misuse of natural resources. A recent study states that the Monarch Butterfly, an icon of Nature’s beauty, may be only 20 years from extinction. Why? Habitat loss in both its Winter and Summering grounds (they Summer and reproduce in Western New York), pesticides, genetically modified crops and climate change are the reasons.

And let’s think about those devaViceroyButterlfy_inHandstating population numbers above.  What is the link to the invertebrate world? Many of these animal populations feed upon invertebrates, be it the adults, larvae and/or eggs. Mosquitoes are a favorite food of both birds and freshwater animals. Is it any wonder there is a rise in Mosquito-borne disease recently? The interconnectivity of Nature is still a mystery and we need to understand these complex relationships as they relate to our own behaviors and use of the natural world.

What can you do to help reverse such trends? Here’s some suggestions:

  • Become knowledgeable about insects and spiders. Learn what services they perform that eventually trickle down to our own survival. And remember, the vast majority of these species pose no harm to you.
  • Put the chemicals and fly-swatters away. First, it is a losing battle – their numbers are too great and many evolve quickly to survive chemical applications. Instead, make sure your screens are tight and intact, turn off lights near windows and doors, use natural repellents (like citronella, cloves and lemon balm).
  • Create wildlife habitat, especially for those native pollinators in peril. All of Nature will benefit – see http://oakmossed.com/garden.php for lots of information on environmentally sound gardening, native plants and our invertebrate friends.

The future of Planet Earth is literally in our hands now. Our actions and failure to act will not only dictate the further existence of wild animals and plants, but our own existence, as well.

Sources:

Upcoming Lecture at ECC South Campus

JohnVolpeLecture_ECCMar2016

Erie Community College South Campus is located at 4140 Southwestern Blvd. in Orchard Park, NY. Email grahamm@ecc.edu with for further information.

Hunting (survival) vs. Killing (ego)

Homo sapiens love to claim a superiority over other species on the planet. We even have a loosely defined categorization method that generally places plants at the bottom followed closely by the “crawly” things (insects, spiders, snakes, etc.). High on the ladder just below our species we place the other primates. But it is not so simplistic since even within genetic families we differentiate (domestic dogs vs. wild canines, for example). And from what I can tell, this hierarchy is pretty much based upon our own species’ ego, likes and dislikes as individuals and societies, and/or religious convictions.

Coyote as bait

Trapped coyote being used as bait for the dogs of an employee of USDA’s Wildlife Services.

What this unilaterally defined hierarchy demonstrates to this writer, however, is a lack of intelligence on the part of H. sapiens because our knowledge and understanding of the roles individual species play within the complex network of Earth’s systems is quite limited. Consider there are thousands of species we’ve not even identified, much less perceive the significance of their niches. There are a few more open-minded scientists who have challenged the lower levels of this pecking order, such as John Marzluff and his research on Corvidae, which flies in the face (pun intended) of previous  “primates are the most intelligent animals” presumptions, but much more work along such lines should be done.

This self-named species’ superiority is the entire problem behind the current mass extinction event the Earth currently is facing. The causes are clearly understood (human over-population, habitat destruction, over-consumption, lack of education, profiteering, etc.) – these all speak of a species nearly entirely self-centered and, thus, woefully misguided.

The taking of a species’ life for a trophy is the epitome of self-centered egotism (one that is either too big, very fragile or potentially both). What other species causes such worthless death? What is wrong with H. sapiens? Is it a genetic mutation? Is our brain malfunctioning because it is more difficult for blood to reach it due to our “uprightedness?” Why do we as a species feel superior to all others? How has our existence improved the complex entity solely responsible for our survival – planet Earth? We seemingly have no beneficial niche unlike the other species with whom we share this blue marble.

Pursuing another species in a fair “sporting” manner for food or because one is under deadly attack can be called hunting. Taking an animal’s life in order to hang its head on the wall, put a rug on the floor, pin its remains in a book, etc. is killing – and ALL such intentional killing, regardless of species, should be illegal.

A few last notes in this highly controlled rant:

  • To recommend or inflict harm on those who collect animal trophies makes one no better than the trophy seeker. Pursue the higher ground and move for legislative and educational changes in our society.
  • For those in the U.S., if you are concerned about the wanton death of wildlife, then focus some of your abhorrence on your federal elected officials and mandate they dissolve Wildlife Services – an arm of the USDA responsible for the deaths of millions of wild animals every year and funded by YOUR tax dollars (see https://www.revealnews.org/article/theres-a-reason-youve-never-heard-of-this-wildlife-killing-agency/ for the gruesome facts, as well as the graphic below).
  • If you fear any wild animal or plant, educate yourself about the species. Learn what role it plays in the environment and understand how it benefits our own species. Knowledge can overcome fear and promotes tolerance.

Each semester, I provide my Environmental Science and Field Ecology students with numerous definitions. The most important one is as follows:

Homo sapiens (hoh-moh sey-pee-uh nz): n. – the only species on planet Earth knowingly engineering its own extinction.

May peace guide the planet…

WildlifeServiceStats_2013

An Oakmoss Summer

Our program line-up for the Summer of 2015 includes two field outings and a hands-on workshop in East Aurora, NY as we continue our mission to share the lessons of Nature to benefit the planet and all its inhabitants. Details and registration information available on our website. Please join us!

Twilight Trek
Saturday, July 11 – 7:00 to 9:00pm at West Falls Park. Enjoy an interpretive stroll through the woods and along the creek at dusk, one of the most active times of day as diurnal creatures wind down and nocturnal critters begin to rouse.

Field Flutterers
Saturday, July 25 – 9:00am to 11:30am at Knox Farm State Park. We’ll be seeking out the flighted creatures of the open field, be they insect or avian. From butterflies to birds, there are many species that fill the morning with activity.

Introduction to Herbal Concoctions
Saturday, August 1 – 1:00pm to 3:30pm at the Roycroft Campus Power House. A hands-on workshop in which students will become acquainted with incorporating common herbs into simple preparations for body care and overall general health.

Let it rain…

Today is gray and wet, dark skies loom and the world around us quiets. But when the Sun re-emerges, oh how life will sing – the birds, the butterflies, the bees will hum harmoniously – and the green of Kingdom Plantae will pulse with new life.

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Habitat Restoration Series: Native Plant Suggestions for Western New York/Southern Ontario – Part 5

Here is our fifth and final installment in our Habitat Restoration Series for Spring.
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Native Plantings for WNY/Southern Ontario – Submission #5 – Flowers and Herbs:
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Flowers

Full Sun – Dry to Moderate, Well Drained Soils

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): Perennial with rhizome growth form so will spread over time. Excellent for very sunny areas that drain well. Tolerant of dry conditions but flowering can be affected in drought situations. Feathery, fern like leaves with bundles of tiny flower heads.

  • Wildlife benefits: May be used as nesting material for some birds
  • Human benefits: Several medicinal uses
Echinacea, a native composite, supports human health and feeds native pollinators

Echinacea, a native composite, supports human health and feeds native pollinators

Coneflower (Echinacea sp.): Perennial coming in many varietals. Tall plants, with daisy like petals and large rounded seed center (cone). Does best if NOT mulched. For best growth and spreading, divide every few years.

  • Wildlife benefits: Butterflies and birds
  • Human benefits: Certain varietals have immune boosting characteristics.

Full Sun to Part Shade – Moist, Well Drained Soils

Bee Balm (Monarda sp.): A member of the mint family, this tall perennial has long petaled flowers in pink, light purple and dark red. Pungent scent when leaves are crushed. Excellent companion plant for a variety of flowers and vegetables. Monarda will spread so divide every two or three years if you want to keep it neat.

  • Wildlife benefits: Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
  • Human benefits: Long used as an antiseptic, to treat headaches. and for seasoning foods

Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum): Perennial with light purple flowers, this native of the Northeast United States made the transfer from wildflower to garden cultivar generations ago. Flowers from mid-summer to mid-autumn. Begin pinching the plants in early summer to help them be shorter and bushier. It’s a creeper so should be divided every two years if you want to keep it under control.

  • Wildlife benefits: Butterflies, bees and birds
  • Human benefits: Named after a New England Indian healer, it is reputed to have several medicinal benefits.
JoePyeBed

A bed of amazingly tall Sweet Joe Pye Weed dwarfing the Echinacea and Cardinal Flower

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis): This beauty will do best when do-planted with taller plants which can filter the hot sun in warmer locales. It blooms in late Summer offering a showy finale as Autumn approaches. Most importantly, it is an important nectar source for Hummingbirds as they “bulk up” for the Fall migration.

  • Wildlife benefits: Hummingbirds, bees and butterflies
  • Human benefits: Traditionally used by the Hodinöhšönih (Iroquois) for a number of ailments. In the modern world, it is

Herbs

Although not truly indigenous to our area, many culinary and fragrant herbs do offer benefits to wildlife along with being just plain useful to humans. And cultivating your own herbs is the ultimate in locally grown.

Most herbs require full sun for at least 6 hours a day. All prefer moist well-drained conditions, although some make do under dry conditions for a time and are noted.

Thyme: Tolerates dry soils. Perennial that will spread so is good as a ground cover. Low growing and comes in several varieties.

  • Wildlife benefits: Bees and butterflies
  • Human benefits: Culinary and medicinal

Oregano: Best in moist, well drained environment. Can be perennial depending on variety. Some are tender perennial and may not make it through very cold winters.

  • Wildlife benefits: Bees
  • Human benefits: Culinary and medicinal

Basil: Best in moist, well drained environments. Annual. Many varieties available with varying pungency, flavor and color.

  • Wildlife benefits: Bees
  • Human benefits: Culinary

Lavender: Tolerates dry soils: Perennial with a number of varieties. Be sure to note the agricultural zone for variety chosen. Some varieties can get shrubby so pruning and thinning could be required.

  • Wildlife benefits: Bees and butterflies
  • Human benefits: Culinary, cosmetic, medicinal and ornamental

Sage: Best in moist, well drained soils but will tolerate moderately dry conditions. Many varieties available with varying pungency and color. Some are perennial; those that are tender perennials should be treated as annuals in our climate.

  • Wildlife benefits: Bees
  • Human benefits: Culinary and medicinal

Chamomile: Roman is the best variety for our region (Chamaemelum nobile). It can do well during dry spells but is not as happy during the heat of Summer so looks its best during the cooler times of the season. Prefers moderate, well drained soils.

Roman Chamomile - small bright flowers atop delicate fern-like leaves

Roman Chamomile – small bright flowers atop delicate fern-like leaves

Although a perennial, it is really an annual in WNY but readily re-seeds.

  • Wildlife benefits: Honeybees
  • Human benefits: Culinary and medicinal

Mints: Use care in planting mints because they WILL spread so consider confining them to containers, the only sure way to keep mints under control. Consider Lemon Balm, Spearmint and Peppermint. Note: While Peppermint and Spearmint generally spread via their root systems, Lemon Balm readily “jumps ship” so expect to find it popping up all around the area it’s been planted – it is easily harvested, however, and with so many uses, you’ll be happy for the volunteers.

  • Wildlife benefits: Bees and butterflies
  • Human benefits: Culinary and medicinal

Don’t miss our previous installment in this Habitat Restoration Series: