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Harris Sanctuary, Kalamazoo County, on a warm sunny Earth Day

Spring beauty in bloom in Pavilion Township. Photo 15 April by Richard Brewer

Saturday, the day after the date of the original Earth Day, was the next to last stewardship work day scheduled for the spring at the Mildred Harris Audubon Sanctuary.  Katy and I started within the east edge of the beech-maple forest, that is, within the forest proper ignoring the border with briars and fallen wood where garlic mustard forms frequent dense patches.  We began at the road, F Avenue and walked compass lines south about 10 meters apart to the south boundary of the Audubon property.

The point was to pull up all the garlic mustard plants we found along our line and between us.  Katy got a large green plastic trash bag almost 2/3 full and mine was about 1/4 full.  At this stage, the plants are still basal clumps with no evidence of stalks that will bear flowers.  It’s desirable to remove flowering plants from the site; there is at least anecdotal evidence that such plants if tossed on the ground may proceed to produce fruits and set seed.  But I wonder if plants at the stage they are now need to be hauled out. Certainly, some soil and nutrients contained in the plant tissue are removed from the site this way, which has some negative consequences.

When we got back home, I laid eight of our pulled-up plants (four large and four small) on the ground in the oak woods where we live. To give them the best possible chance, I raked off the oak litter.  I’ll follow them for at least a couple of weeks and see what happens.

Garlic mustard plants pulled at Harris Sanctuary staked out in Oshtemo Township. Photo 23 April by Richard Brewer

Perhaps this super invasive will manage to point its roots down and send a shoot up and be back in business.  Or maybe it will turn out to be only mortal and all eight will shrivel, die, and blow away.  We’ll see.

As to other phenological events, Toothwort is blooming, as is spring beauty.  So is Dutchman’s breeches, though the flowers on most of the plants and still cream-colored and knobby rather than white and puffy the way Dutch boys pants are supposed to have been.   I saw leaves of a species of waterleaf  (Hydrophyllum) but, of course, no buds or flowers.  Waterleaf is not one of the spring ephemerals. The shrub spicebush was also in bloom.

I saw several patches of soil where the dead maple leaves had been removed–scratched away by Wild Turkeys I concluded, based on an occasional bird dropping of the appropriate large size near one of the patches.  Turkeys seem considerably more common in and around the sanctuary than a few years ago.

Katy and I completed one pass from north to south along the east side of the forest and then walked back through the same strip, finding a couple more garlic mustard plants.  Then we called it a morning about 9:30.

No other Audubonites had shown up for the scheduled and publicized work day.  When we drove up at just before 9AM, a white van was parked alongside the road ahead of us on F Avenue.  But when I checked to see if they might be volunteers, it was only a family attracted by displaying turkeys not far off the road in the woods north across from the Audubon Preserve.

Wednesday, April 27, was supposed to be the last Harris work day of the spring but we decided to cancel it.  As we announced at the Audubon Society of Kalamazoo meeting Monday night 25 April, we’ll reschedule for Saturday, 7 May 9 AM and see who comes then. One of the things we’ll do is continue walking lines in the forest, where we have managed to keep the number of garlic mustard (and any other invasive plant) to a manageable level).

Meanwhile spring advances.  Yesterday in Pavilion Township the larger clumps of garlic mustard  had small flower buds.  Mayapple and wild ginger were up and have flower buds (the individuals that will flower have buds when they emerge from the ground).  The earliest Trillium grandiflorum are up.

Stewardship Work Days at Aububon’s Harris Preserve Sat 9 April AM and Tues 12 April early PM

Saturday 9 April 2011 is the first Harris Sanctuary (Audubon Society of Kalamazoo) stewardship day, or to be blunt, first work day.  Hours are 9-11 AM.

The second work day is Tuesday, April 12, hours 5:30-7:30 PM.

Anyone who has an interest in the sanctuary and its management is invited to join in the effort on one or both dates.

The other two spring workdays are Saturday April 23, 9-11 AM and Wednesday April 27, 5:30-7:30 PM.

The Mildred Harris Sanctuary is located in the southwest corner of F Ave. and 8th St. in Alamo Township, Kalamazoo County.

What we can accomplish depends on how many people show up.  On this first work day of the year, someone should walk the roads that border the 40-acre property and pick up any debris that has built up over the winter.  When Katy and I visited Thursday morning, there seemed to be no major accumulation.

One change last year in our approach to management included brushhogging along the edge of the forest.  The preserve is roughly 50:50 beech-maple forest (west side) and grassland (old hayfield, on the east side). The one place where garlic mustard is abundant is in the areas along the forest edge occupied by dense growths of raspberries and blackberries or multiflora rose.  Large segments of these all but impenetrable thickets have been mowed down enough that they are not quite impenetrable, hence open for garlic mustard control.

One major task that we will begin Saturday will be attacking the somewhat exposed garlic mustard.  This will be by spraying, daubing with glyphosate, and pulling.  The second and third will be done by the volunteers who show up.

Someone can walk through the beech-maple forest looking for garlic mustard plants, which will mostly be visible as basal clumps of leaves.  In the woods itself only occasional individual or small clusters of plants will be found. Flagging any plants spotted can be followed up on later trips by careful pulling with the pulled plants carried away in bags.

In the brushhogged strip along the edge of the wood, the stubs left over from the larger trees and clubs could be lopped off at ground level to reduce the likelihood of tripping and falling by stewards and other visitors and daubed with glyphosate to discourage resprouting.

Brushhogging was also done in the field.  About one-third of the field was mowed last summer.  We will be interested in how many of the woody invaders resprout as the spring and summer go along.  It’s possible that brushhogging one-third of the field every year, so that the whole area is mowed every three years could keep the shrubs and trees stunted enough that the field area remains effectively a grassland.

One more task that we need to tackle sometime this year is the Mildred Harris Sanctuary sign.  It needs, at a minimum, repainting of the routed letters.  A thorough renovation of the sign, including repainting is another possibility.  A third, if there should be a woodworker with skill at routing, would be a totally new sign.

Katy and I will see you at 8th and F Saturday morning and/or Tuesday early evening. Park around the corner on F Ave. Bring work gloves and any tools you favor.  We’ll have some lopping shears, glyphosate, vinyl disposable gloves, and plastic bags.

Wide Bike Trail Through the Preserve?: Speak Out to Save the Ott

Take Action on the Proposed Trail Through the Harvey Ott Biological Preserve

Main esker trail, looking down toward bridge, Harvey Ott Biological Preserve. Photo February 2011 Richard Brewer

The Calhoun County Commissioners will be the ones voting on the trail.  They may give more weight to messages from their constituents; nevertheless, it will be of value to them to know if the threat to the Ott Preserve is a matter of concern to conservationists and nature lovers elsewhere.

Most of the information that follows is from the Say “No” to Pavement: Protect Ott Biological Preserve organization and was supplied by Sophia DiPietro. Comments in italics are mine.  Besides earlier posts at this website, information on the proposed trail through the preserve and its drawbacks are most readily accessible at the Facebook page Say “No” to Pavement: Protect Ott Biological Preserve, especially the Wall and Info sections.

Upcoming Public Meeting–All are invited.

Ott Biological Preserve Proposed “Trailway” Public Forum Thursday, March 17 (St. Patrick’s Day) 5:30pm – 8:30pm

County Commission Chambers (3rd floor County Building)
315 W. Green St.
Marshall, MI

The County Building is near the center of Marshall .  Green is  the main east-west street and the county building is half a block east of Kalamazoo Avenue, the main north south Street.  (As a landmark, Schuler’s Restaurant is in the next block east on Green.)

This is one meeting you won’t want to miss! Don’t like the thought of the proposed “smooth-surfaced highway” through Ott Biological Preserve? This is YOUR time to speak up. There will be at least one presentation by the trailway alliance promoting their trail, and at least one presentation advocating for the protection of Ott. There will be a question/answer period and hopefully full opportunity for local citizens to make their voices heard against this trail proposal.

Come prepared! Make some notes as to why you feel Ott should remain free from development! County Commissioners need to hear from you! A regularly scheduled County Commission meeting follows the forum at 7pm

The Commission NEEDS to hear your opposition to trail development in Ott Biological Preserve. Send POLITE letters either snail-mail or email (scroll to bottom for emails group).

Calhoun County Board of Commissioners

Julie Camp (Republican)(re-elected)
8934 5 Mile Road
East Leroy, MI 49051
Fax: (269) 781-0140

Terris Todd (Democrat) (re-elected)
135 Irving Park Dr.
Battle Creek, MI 49017

Jim Haadsma (D) (re-elected)
146 South Lincoln Boulevard
Battle Creek, MI 49015

Mark Behnke (R)
474 Country Club Drive
Battle Creek, MI 49015

Steve Frisbie (R)
148 Pheasantwood Trail
Battle Creek, MI 49017

Blaine VanSickle (R)
16828 21 Mile Road
Marshall, MI 49068
No email

Art Kale (R) (Chair)
3101 Country Club Way
P.O. Box 672
Albion, MI 49224

Compiled email contacts for pasting into email
(NOTE: Commissioner VanSickle does not have an email address):,,,,,

For Calhoun County residents, to find out who your specific county commissioner is, check out the county website for more info:

Parks/Road Commissioners who have pursued this trailway jointly with the nonprofit Calhoun County Trailway Alliance (and therefore may not be objective to concerns):

Christopher Vreeland
119 North Grand Street
Marshall, MI 49068
Fax: (269) 781-6101

Scott Brown
504 Lincoln
Albion, MI 49224
Fax: (269) 781-6101

Hugh Coward
546 Sylvan Drive
Battle Creek, MI 49017
Fax: (269) 781-6101

Eric Tobin
520 S. Avenue C
Athens, MI 49011
Fax: None

Email Group:,,,

Trail through the Ott Preserve: Going out of its way to pave the esker

Main Esker Trail, Ott Preserve. Photo February 2011 by Richard Brewer

Main Esker Trail, Ott Preserve. Photo February 2011 by Richard Brewer

Last Saturday, I took a walk with about twenty other people at the Harvey Ott Biological Preserve. This is where the Calhoun County Trailway Alliance wants to put a 10-foot wide paved cycling trail. Tom Funke, Director of Conservation for the Michigan Audubon Society, led the excursion. MAS owns about 20 sanctuaries. Tom is a Western Michigan University grad (Biological Sciences and Environmental Studies) who is well acquainted with the Ott Preserve, having spent his immediate post-graduation years in Battle Creek and having been a board member of Friends of the Ott Preserve. The Friends is a non-profit conservation group formed soon after the 1994 timber cutting in Ott but just now being reactivated after a dormant period following several tranquil years at the Preserve. We entered at a parking lot at the south end on land donated  by the Sutarek family as an addition to the preserve after the logging. I was glad to get a chance to walk a part of the proposed trail, though exactly where the trail is  supposed to go needs to be made clearer, at least to me. If I’m reading the available material correctly, the trail goes out of its way to invade the Ott Preserve, potentially bringing traffic whose interest is not the Preserve but mileage on the Calhoun County or North Country Trail. If things go on as they have been, the public may not get a full picture of the specifications for the trail until trail advocates and associated government agencies have settled everything among themselves.  Some comments by the trail advocates seem to suggest–maybe are meant to suggest–that that point may already have been reached.  We read comments like “Both of these entities could pull their funding for the project if the approved route… is changed.” and “If we change the plan or encounter significant delays in implementation, we could lose dollars committed to Calhoun County….” It does seem clear that part of the route in the preserve is projected to follow the existing main esker trail.  We reached this trail after traveling over other sections of the existing foot path, which included an unpaved dirt section, a Trek boardwalk, and an iron bridge.  I’m uncertain what the plans are for these sections of the path.  Are they flat enough, smooth enough, wide enough, and with a strong-enough base to be incorporated in the proposed trail?

Width of the Main Esker Trail, Ott Preserve. Photo February 2011 by Richard Brewer

The main esker trail begins not much past the bridge.  Currently this foot trail–shown in the first two photos–runs on the side of the esker and is less than five feet wide, or in other words, less than half the width of the proposed paved rail.  To the 10-foot paved trail would be added additional 2-foot-wide unpaved right-of-way strips on each side. The resulting 14-foot trail would mean a major remaking of this land. If it actually followed the current trail (which the trail advocates’ literature suggests), a much larger shelf than seen in the photo–three times as wide as shown, maybe more–would have to be cut in the side of the esker.  If, instead, the trail followed the top of the esker, a great deal of grading and filling would be needed to produce a flat, level surface for a 14-foot right of way. It seems clear that much more land in the preserve than just a claimed 2 acres (1.7 miles long X 10 feet wide) would be disturbed in the construction. Eskers are interesting land forms. They are formed toward the front of a sheet of glacial ice at a time when the front is just sitting there or wasting away at the end of a glacial advance.  Running water carrying rocks, gravel, sand, and silt forms channels through the ice–below it, on top of it, or even as a tunnel within it.  The rivers in these narrow. meandering channels deposit the sediments they’re carrying. The result, when the glacier has melted back, are ridges–eskers–of water-sorted, but mostly coarse, material. Aside from damages to the plant cover from construction, the existence and use of such a trail would have continuing harmful effects on the vegetation and wildlife. A broad, paved trail forms a barrier to travel for many small animals, fragmenting their populations. Birds and mammals move away from a trail when people go by, especially noisy people; hence the amount of usable habitat is reduced. Construction and maintenance equipment bring in seeds of invasive plants. Besides these unfortunate biological effects, there are other reasons to be sorry to see the esker whittled away.  It’s a specific habitat for organisms, but it’s also a distinctive landform, interesting in itself. An esker is worth protecting. About forty years ago, the city of Portage refurbished Ramona Park on Long Lake in Kalamazoo County.  One feature of Ramona Park was the presence of a couple of drumlins.  Like eskers, drumlins are glacier-produced hills, but they’re usually small, stream-lined, and symmetrical.  Frequently they’re tear-drop-shaped in outline, in which case the pointed ends show the direction the ice sheet was going toward. In fixing up the park, the Portage park department got rid of the drumlins–bull-dozed them flat and used the till to fill in some low spots.  I’m not sure whether the Portage politicians and bureaucrats didn’t know that the little hills were drumlins or didn’t care.  Possibly they knew very well and flattened them with sincere regret after an environmental assessment and a careful weighing of all economic, environmental, and societal costs and benefits.

An Absence of Drumlins, Ramona Park, Portage. Photo February 2011 by Richard Brewer

Anyway, the drumlins are gone, replaced with playing fields, parking lots, and lawn. I think the citizens of southwest Michigan got skinned.

Preserving landforms–eskers, drumlins, waterfalls, caves, cliffs–is slightly different from preserving ecosystems or flora and fauna, though they go together.  But after all, the land is where Homo sapiens has always lived.  It’s pretty common for certain unusual landforms to be preserved. Waterfalls, caves, and natural bridges usually get protected, one way or another.  There are a few land trusts that specialize in caves, and there could certainly be others that specialize in, say, springs or serpentine soil. But we should recognize that humans have always altered, even damaged, the land they occupy. This includes eskers. Eskers are often associated with swampy or marshy areas, as at Ott, and for as long as humans have lived in the glaciated parts of the world–about 40,000 years for Europe, perhaps 15,000 years in North America–they have probably used eskers, where available, as a dry path.  Almost certainly, the local Indians trod the Ott esker, and there’s no reason for us not to do so still.  But we ought to tread as lightly as possible, not with bulldozers and asphalt.  I expect my ancestors in Europe as well as the Potawatomi here in Michigan walked single file.  That’s probably still good enough for us when we’re in a preserve.

Beaver Dam, Ott Preserve. Photo February 2011 by Richard Brewer

Altering our living space is not a uniquely human thing; every organism does it—pigs rooting up spring wildflowers and buffalos enlarging their wallows are just obvious examples.  The difference between us and other organisms is that we are, or ought to be, aware of the damage we can do.  We can mend our ways rather than wait for destruction and catastrophe to take their toll on us.  Instant gratification without considering environmental consequences is behaving like every other member of the animal kingdom.  Thought which may lead to prudential restraint is what we do that is human.

Darwin and the Tree of Life Vs. Science Illiteracy

A section of the Darwin shelf. Photo by Richard Brewer

I got an email message from Barack Obama today–well, maybe not from Barack personally.  The heading of the message was, “What does your T-shirt say?”

The next message in my mail box was from the Center for Inquiry, Michigan chapter, reminding me not to forget Charles Darwin’s birthday, Saturday February 12th.

The Obama T-shirt is very nice, a pretty blue, and says, “We Do Big Things,” which I think may be from the State-of-the-Union speech.   All in all, though, a better T-shirt to wear this time of the year would be one of the T-shirts you can get with the “tree of life” diagram based on gene sequencing.  This is the diagram where the end branches of the phylogenetic tree are arranged to form a big circle. The primate branch or maybe it’s the hominid branch, has an arrow pointing to it and a label, “You are here.”

Wearing such a shirt might be a good way to start some conversations.  We know from polls that many Americans doubt the existence of evolution.  As to the specific question, Did human beings develop from other species of animals?, the figures for the U.S. (in 2005) were 40% yes and 40% no.  Twenty per cent hadn’t decided yet.

In the 33 other countries where the same question was asked, the yeses were over 60% for most of them.  I’m reading from a graph, but it looks like Denmark had yeses just over 80%, France just under 80%, followed by Japan, the UK, Norway, Spain, Germany and several others above 70%.

At least the U.S. isn’t the lowest on the list. Turkey is below us, with yeses below 30%.  In fact, since only 34 countries were included it’s not impossible that some country omitted–Iraq or Afghanistan perhaps–would have been below the U.S. and Turkey.

The figures don’t give me much reason to believe that America has progressed a whole lot since my boyhood in southern Illinois.  After the gospel quartet was done, the preachers in the little country churches, in tones rising toward hysteria, would fulminate against the idea that man had descended from the monkey.

But belief or non-belief in evolution is not America’s main problem.  With or without our endorsement, genetic variation will go on, natural selection will do what it’s going to do, and adaptation will continue apace.  Our poor showing on the evolution issue is an indicator of a bigger problem–America’s low level of scientific knowledge and, much more serious, our general lack of understanding of scientific reasoning.

Of course, that’s not news. The newspapers have all had reports recently telling us how poor we are in science.  The National Assessment of Educational Progress  (NAEP) tests say that 40 per cent of U. S. high school seniors function below the basic level in science and only 1 per cent  perform at the advanced level.  We also are confronted with a dismaying variety of other data showing the same deficiency: For example, 49 per cent of U.S. adults don’t know how long it takes for the Earth to circle the Sun.

The fact of the matter is that, despite our country’s many fine scientists and excellent research in most fields of human knowledge, America as a nation has rarely shown a strong interest in science. Figuring out what causes this and how to fix it are things Obama needs to work on. There’s not much evidence he’s on the right track as yet.

For my part, as a beginning, I’ll order a “You Are Here” tree-of-life shirt and wear it on Darwin’s birthday. Maybe for the whole week.

Our Little House in an Unpredictable Habitat

When I taught ecology to biology majors and minors I would occasionally include a question on the final exam something like this:  Describe two ways in which the study of ecology could save your life.

I was happy to accept answers at any level of the environment from “If I don’t build my house in chaparral I won’t get burnt up in the next chaparral fire.” to “I’ll cut down on energy usage, hence CO2 emissions, and I and the rest of us won’t get drowned when we’re living in Miami, Charleston, or Wilmington and the sea level rises.”

Some students got it, but a few didn’t.  For the latter, perhaps ecology was simply a required course, as remote from real life as a class in theatrical costumes of the 17th century.

Just out is an interesting article by two who get it, Jim Armstrong, a poet, and Kim Chapman, an old friend and former student.  Both got a lot of their schooling in Kalamazoo.  The article is called What Laura Saw: Making a Little Home on the Extreme Great Plains. The article is about the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder but puts it in an ecological context.  Ecology turns out to set the social and economic contexts of the Ingalls’ lives also.

The article appears in the recently published Proceedings of the 21st North American Prairie Conference. The conference was at Winona State University in Minnesota in August 2008.

Western Michigan University was host in 1982 to the Eighth Prairie Conference. Kim Chapman, then a graduate student, served as field trip coordinator, poetry contest chairman, and co-designer of the logo.  He was also finishing up his master’s thesis.

What Laura saw around her little house, in Armstrong and Chapman’s words, was “a highly evolved environment, where several thousand years of drought, fire, hail, harsh winters, and intense grazing by ungulates and locusts shaped a responsiveness in plant and animal life that enabled the whole of the environment to persist even as individuals and species disappeared or shifted in abundance and location. That environment was beautiful and hostile by turns and Laura described this in memorable detail.”

The bison and the grasshoppers (the Rocky Mountain locust) were members of this ecosystem.  The locust is now extinct and the bison no longer around as a free-roaming species.  Still extant because they don’t infringe much on human property rights or economics are most of the bird species whose life histories fit them for flourishing in the years of good rainfall and good growth and pretty much moving out in the droughts.  The Yellow-headed Blackbird is an example that I talked about a few months ago.

“The argument threaded through all the books,” Armstrong and Chapman point out, “is that an independent-minded family, pulling together and with a little help from neighbors, could make a living on the Great Plains by their enterprise and hard labor.  As the books progress, however, the reader understands that Pa [Charles P. Ingalls] was not able to realize that dream for his family.  This tension is what makes the books readable today.”

By 1894, Laura and her husband, Almanzo,  had moved to “the well-watered Missouri Ozarks where they lived for the rest of their lives.”  And where Laura and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, worked on the Little House books starting in 1930.

The books promote individualism, hard work, and self-sufficiency.  These are admirable traits, but were not enough in themselves to bring success in the unpredictable habitat of the Great Plains.  Even here in the “well-watered” eastern U.S. and, in fact, in the world as whole, we now live in an environment  characterized by unpredictability–largely brought on by our own actions.  Other virtues, especially an attention to the whole ecosystem, human, biotic, and abiotic, will have to be added if success is to be ours.

Copies of the Proceedings, which have a lot of other prairie articles besides this one, are available in 2 formats: CD, $ 8.00 per copy or hard copy, $29.50 per copy. The combination CD and hard copy are $35.00.  All prices include mailing.  Make your check out and send to Bruno Borsari, Ph.D., Department of Biology, 175 West Mark Street, Winona State University, Winona, MN 55987    Phone (507) 457-2822.

The Plenteous Summer

Prairie planting Oshtemo Township August 2010. Photo by Richard Brewer

When I go outside this summer I’m impressed by the amount of greenery.  I don’t have data, but it’s the greenest summer–the largest volume of foliage–I remember.

This makes sense.  The limiting factors for photosynthesis, Biology 101 tells us, are temperature, light, and carbon dioxide.  Translating photosynthesis into plant growth–that is, new biomass–also involves availability of water and soil nutrients, such as nitrogen.

This  growing season has been, day after day, one of the most consistently warm years–hot, I’d say–that I remember.

As for sunlight, I doubt that one summer is a lot different from another. Certainly, day length is the same from one year to the next.  There may be a few more cloudy hours one year than another, but all in all I suspect that the light this year has been about the same as last year or the one before.

Water, though, I think may have been in better supply than usual.  I haven’t tried to check weather station figures, but from my own rain gauge and how often our garden needed water, it seems to me that we’ve had a lot of well-spaced soaking rains.

Nitrogen is sometimes a limiting factor for plants, including several field crops. I don’t know that it was any more or less abundant this year.  Nitrogen compounds from agriculture are generally increasing in the environment.  For some plants an increase in nitrogen could encourage growth; however, many plants have modest soil nitrogen requirements.  Included are many prairie species.  For such species, a lot more nitrogen doesn’t increase production.

However, the compound nitrous oxide is increasing in the atmosphere as a result of current agricultural practice.  Nitrous oxide is a powerful greenhouse gas, so it’s likely that more nitrous oxide is a part of the equation for global climate change in general.

More influential though is the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide.  As everybody knows, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has gone steadily up, probably since early in the Industrial Age and certainly since 1958, when the systematic recording of atmospheric carbon dioxide began. Lately, the concentration has been rising about 3% per year.  This implies a doubling in about a quarter century, roughly one human generation.

So, maybe high temperatures, lots of rain, and more carbon dioxide than ever made 2010 a banner year. My guess is that the luxuriant growth this year is mostly tied to the warmer summer and the plentiful and effective rainfall.  The carbon dioxide level would have only have changed a couple of parts per million from last year.

Poison ivy growing up an oak, Oshtemo Township August 2010. Photo by Richard Brewer

However, increased carbon dioxide is probably the primary agent for a great increase in the growth of some plants in the past decade or more.  I’m thinking particularly of the vines, specifically the lianas–vines that can spread across the ground but can also climb trees.  Poison ivy, the several species of grapes, and Virginia creeper are native examples of lianas. There are a number of introduced lianas that are invasives in some natural areas.  Local examples are Asian bittersweet and European ivy.

A little more than twenty years ago, a friend asked me whether I thought that wild grapes were a serious pest in local forests; specifically, how frequently did they climb into the crown of a tree and kill it by shading its leaves?  I had spent a lot of time in beech-maple forests and told him that in my experience such a thing was rare. I went on to say that having a tangle of grapes in the forest canopy had its benefits, among them providing cover for barred and horned owls to hide from crows and blue jays.

No more than five years later my advice would have been different. At least by the mid-1990s, the grapes, Virginia creeper, and poison ivy were creeping up tree trunks in much greater numbers and the trees were suffering.  These trends continue.

Lianas are, of course, a prominent life form in the forests of the Tropics, and it’s possible that their success here in recent years is just one more result of global climate change. But temperatures are erratic.  The general trend in this part of the world is up, but any given year may be unchanged or even down.  Carbon dioxide, by contrast, is a little higher every year. My guess fifteen years ago when I began to notice the increased liana growth was that it was related to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide.  Research in the past few years supports that hypothesis.  This link is to a study of poison ivy.

Despite what’s been happening with the lianas, my impression is that most herbs and shrubs within the forest didn’t join in this year’s burst of growth, not the way plants of the edges and the open spaces have.  Perhaps this makes sense too.  In the forests, the limiting factor for plant growth most of the time is light.  Despite our atmosphere’s extra carbon dioxide, despite this year’s good supply of water and the high temperatures, light at ground level within the forest is dim most of the growing season.  In the oak woods here, sweet cicely, white avens, tick trefoil didn’t look any more robust than they did last year.

It was just an average year in the woods.

Colony Farm Orchard: A Voter’s Guide

I sent the following to the Kalamazoo Gazette as a Letter to the Editor.  The Gazette’s automated response told me that publication could take up to 2 months, which would be a month after the primary elections on August 3rd.  So I’m posting it here, slightly modified.

To what I say in the letter, I would only add that electing politicians who were involved in passage of House Bill 5207 would be seen as, and would be, a validation of the whole process of breaking the covenant and setting the Colony Farm Orchard up for development.

By “the whole process,” I mean the sneaky introduction of the bill at a time when few students were on campus, most faculty were concentrating on their research in their labs or at off-campus sites, and many townspeople were on vacation.  I mean the way the politicians and WMU spokesmen substituted repetition of PowerPoint bullets for a debate on the issues.  And I mean the cynical marketing of development of these 53 acres next to Asylum Lake Preserve as Kalamazoo’s job creation solution, while giving a cold shoulder to remediated brownfields, in regional economic terms the logical location for BTR park expansion.

Horse chestnut tree, Colony Farm Orchard, spring 2010. Photo by Richard Brewer

Politicians whose names became notorious through their connection with House Bill 5207 are running again.

HB 5207 stripped from the Colony Farm Orchard the covenant that it be kept as open space for public use. Probably the most anti-conservation, anti-environment, anti-sustainability bill in the legislature last session, it fleeced us of dedicated open land and, if the land is developed, is a threat to Asylum Lake Preserve.

Most of us have a clear recollection of the events of 2009.  This recap is for those few who seem to have come down with a case of  early-onset political amnesia, as shown by a scattering of recent endorsements.

Robert Jones, let us recall, introduced HB 5207 July 16th, 2009 with no public notice from him or Western Michigan University at whose behest the deed was done. Jones is running again, this time in the Democratic primary for the 20th Senatorial district.  Fortunately, he is opposed by an excellent candidate, Mark Totten, untainted by the 5207 shenanigans.

And let us remember Larry DeShazor, who represented the District where the Colony Farm Orchard is located (in Oshtemo township).  He is running in Senatorial District 20 in the Republican primary. Neither Jones nor WMU had bothered to tell DeShazor about 5207; nevertheless, he voted for it in Committee and in the full House. His main Republican opponent is Tonya Schuitmaker, who also voted for 5207 in the House.

Tom George voted for 5207 in the Senate Appropriations Committee and in the Senate as whole.  Along with a bunch of other politicians, George is now running in the Republican primary for governor. In the Democratic primary is Andy Dillon, who allowed all this to happen while speaker of the House, and a second candidate, Virg Bernero, untainted by 5207 and as far as I can tell sound on other conservation issues.

Remember that the politicians who voted for 5207, local and otherwise, ignored an unprecedented outpouring of grass-roots sentiment against it.  But the letters, emails, phone calls, and personal visits were from conservationists, members of neighborhood groups, Environmental Studies students, and ordinary citizens who believe that promises should be kept–not the people these politicians are used to listening to.

And finally, remember that Jones or George and probably DeShazor, could have stopped 5207 dead in its tracks simply by saying to their colleagues, “I have concluded that this bill affecting my district is bad legislation.”

Should we put any of the supporters of 5207 in positions to do further damage?

Getting Maps Right for the Color-blind Naturalist

Rainbow at dusk near Tarcoles, Costa Rica, 17 February 2010. Photo by Richard Brewer

The January 2010 issue of The Auk published my review of the Atlas of Breeding Birds of Ontario, 2001-2005.  It’s a fine book. It may be a little heavy for some readers–it weighs more than seven pounds.

The next (April) issue of The Auk published a Letter to the Editor that made reference to the review.  The letter from Wayne E. Thogmartin (with the U.S. Geological Survey at its LaCrosse, Wisconsin, center) was prompted, he wrote, by “a peculiar aside proffered by the author.”  He then quoted the following passage from my review:

A word about the colors of the maps:  Like nearly 10% of males in the United States (a similar prevalence in Canada, I suspect), I have red-green color blindness.  Though it may seem unfair that maps and other color-coded graphics should be designed with 10% of one-half of the human population in mind, I suggest that it is unwise to design materials that will be unintelligible or at best ambiguous for this segment of the population. My wife, like 99% of the female population, has good color vision.  She informs me that the breeding evidence maps use the following colors–gold, orange, red, yellow, and dark gray (plus white). I can separate all these colors, whether I can identify them or not.

I have more trouble with the relative abundance maps; they use white, yellow, gold, light orange, orange, and red.  In areas where the abundance level marches in orderly progression from low to high, I can pretty much distinguish the six abundance classes.  But an isolated blob might require considerable study in very good light.

At least these maps do not intermix red and green.

The emphasis was added by Thogmartin.

He calculated that at 8% prevalence in the general (male) population, about 140 members of the AOU are likely to have red-green color blindness, or “color-vision impairment.” He went on to say, “Any failure to produce a color legend that is informative to the full spectrum of ornithologists is unfortunate,” because methods are available that allow map-makers to produce maps with color schemes everyone can interpret. He cited several sources that can be consulted by the map-maker who aspires to inclusiveness and social equity.

I’m indebted to Thogmartin for making my aside operational.  I admit I’m puzzled by his characterization of it as “peculiar.”  But it does seem odd, if not peculiar, that one of the most important students of getting map colors right for the color-blind, as cited by Thogmartin, is also named Brewer.  That would be Cynthia A., professor of geography at Penn State (no relation).

Cynthia A.  has an online tool for map design, ColorBrewer, that looks very useful for designing color schemes. On the other hand, just having the cartographer confer with a color-vision impaired person might do the trick almost as well.  The map Presettlement Vegetation of Kalamazoo County, Michigan (Thomas W. Hodler, Richard Brewer, Lawrence G. Brewer (also no relation), and Henry A. Raup, 1981, Western Michigan University Department of Geography) has a color scheme anyone can readily interpret because a color-vision impaired person (me) chose the colors for the cartographer.

I noticed a couple of days ago that the National Weather Service’s on-line radar maps have a downloadable Color Blindness Tool (located on the left side of the screen under Additional Info:)  On-line radar has always looked like multicolored hash to me, so I’m hoping the tool (Visolve) will prove usable and useful.

Senate Passes HB 5207; Governor next step

Sticky trap for insects possibly the property of MSU, Colony Farm Orchard, spring 2009.  Photo by Richard Brewer

Sticky trap for insects possibly the property of MSU, Colony Farm Orchard, spring 2009. Photo by Richard Brewer

Friday night, 18 December 2009, between 10:30 and 11:00 PM, not long before adjournment, the Michigan Senate passed HB 5207, which would strip the open space/public use restrictions from the Colony Farm Orchard land, allowing Western Michigan University to put it to any use.

Most of the senators voting yes probably bought WMU’s claim that passing the bill would create jobs by using it to expand the BTR park. If it would, none of the jobs would come on line until at least 2013, since any expansion of the BTR park would occur after the current park is full. It still has three unused lots, at least two vacancies, and the temporary soccer facility of 20 acres.

I’m working on a longer post, but it’s worth pointing out now that the next step is for the bill to go to Governor Jennifer Granholm, who will sign it or veto it.

For those interested in commenting on the legislation, here is some contact information for the governor.  It’s likely that there is time to reach her by any means including US Postal letters but the sooner, the better. Phone calls, letters, Faxes, and emails are all useful.

Contact information for Governor Jennifer Granholm:

Phone: (517) 373-3400
Phone: (517) 335-7858 – Constituent Services
Fax: (517) 335-6863

PO Box 30013
Lansing, MI 48909

Here is a link to an email citizen opinion forum

Here is a link to governor’s standard email.