banner1gif.gif

Right in Our Backyard

Fireflies and Climate Change

By Bill Lawyer

Ever since I started writing articles about nature and the environment, I’ve been getting questions about the fate of fireflies, vis-à-vis global climate change.

Fireflies (which are actually a type of beetle) have always symbolized to me the delicate beauty and amazing variety of the wildlife that we have all around us.

Yes, you can go to a place like Thailand or Bioluminescent Bay in Puerto Rico and see spectacular clusters of fireflies, but for many years all I had to do was go to one of the fields or meadows nearby (including my backyard).

I still see an occasional firefly, and enjoy watching neighborhood children trying to capture some for a close look (before returning them).

Inside their small bodies, fireflies have developed the chemical and biological attributes to produce light without producing heat.

Ironically, while scientists have come up with many ways to use their knowledge of bioluminescence, we keep destroying the open spaces that fireflies need to carry out their courtship and procreation rituals.

According to a recent issue of Science Magazine, scientists from universities in Michigan have been carrying on a survey of the firefly population for the past dozen years. During that time, they found that the population varies on a three-year cycle — increasing or decreasing. While they don’t have conclusive proof as to why this is happening, so far they’ve posited that fireflies need warm weather to function, but also sufficient rainfall.

Cornell University scientists have noted that as average temperatures rise, fireflies emerge earlier which may impact on the foods they eat (or what eats them).

Entomology Professor Michael Hoffman says that one possible reason for the seeming increase in numbers of fireflies in Michigan may be caused by wet springs, a trend that will occur with climate change in the Northeastern U.S.

Since we have just experienced a relatively wet spring and early summer, firefly populations in Rye should be growing. That’s because firefly larvae (glow worms) feed on snails, slugs, and other small invertebrates. With more moisture, the number of snails and slugs likely increase, providing more food for fireflies and insuring good populations of adults.

But many of the wetlands and meadows that would normally be providing those moist conditions are drying up or being paved over.

Other factors to consider here in Rye are the use of insecticides, and the conversion of streams into storm sewers. Increased artificial lighting has had an impact as well, making it harder for fireflies to find potential mates.

Overall, it seems as though there is no simple answer to the question of changing population numbers. Dr. Hoffman says that continued research is required, along with expanded coverage of firefly populations in other parts of the country.

My most recent close encounter with a firefly was when I was taking my dog out for a walk, and I found one on my kitchen counter. I have no idea how it got there. Luckily, I was able to get it out the door and it flew away.

As I’m writing this, at about 8:30 in the evening, I can see a couple of fireflies blinking outside my window. They don’t know about climate change, but let’s hope that they can adapt to the changing conditions. What would summer be without them?

With photo

By Bill Lawyer

A few of my “Right in Our Backyard” columns have somewhat stretched the definition of “backyard.”

Whelks, for example, can only be found in our backyard if it happens to be along the coast of Long Island Sound. Or someone placed it there as part of a shell collection.

But the subject of this column, the Eastern Towhee, was literally seen and heard on a recent spring afternoon in the bushes in my backyard about 20 feet from where I was sitting on the deck.

During these peak days of spring, there are so many birdsong serenades that it’s sometimes hard to distinguish one from another. I recognized cardinals, robins, woodpeckers, sparrows, wrens, and blue jays, to name a few.

But the one that caught my attention was the one sometimes referred to as the “drink your tea” bird. That’s because its most common, prominent call sounds like a mother bird insisting its young do so.

Just to confuse things, however, the bird’s name — towhee — comes from a different sound that it makes, which sounds sort of like “chu’wink” (accent on the second syllable).

We all know how colorful birds can be, particularly the males of the various species. This is certainly true of the towhees.

As the Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes it, adults have rufous sides, a white belly, and a long dark tail with white edges. The eyes are red, white for birds in the Southeast. Males have a black head, upper body, and tail; these parts are brown in the female. For the edification of birding beginners, more experienced birders like to refer to the color that Benjamin Moore calls “rusty red” as rufous.

Of all the species of sparrows in North America, towhees are one of the largest and most colorful, according to ornithologists. They’re certainly the most colorful I have ever seen. The sharp contrast of red, white and black is quite striking.

Serious birders sort sparrow families into “Old World” or “New World” categories — with towhees in the the latter.

Until recently, the towhees now named Eastern Towhees and Spotted Towhees were considered one species, the Rufous-Sided Towhee.

While sitting on the deck there were lots of birds flitting around, mainly coming and going from my neighbor’s bird feeder. But the singing towhee stayed out of sight, in among the shrubs. None of the birds seemed intimidated by my presence, or my giving in to the irresistible urge to imitate the “drink your tea” admonition.

Towhees are one of many species that are more dependent upon shrub landscapes than forests. The berries of more than 30 species of shrubs are highly important for such birds’ diet, according to the National Audubon Society.

Towhees also find lots to eat on the shrub-dominated forest floor, where they can feed on many kinds of invertebrates. These include insects, spiders, millipedes, centipedes, and snails.

Unfortunately, it appears as though towhees are not known to eat ticks, which would have been a nice deterrent to the spread of Lyme disease.

In fact, according to the staff of the Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History in York, South Carolina, Eastern Towhees are one of the most common attractors of ticks.

So the take-away of all this is that Towhees can be appreciated for their colorful plumage and their place in the environment from afar — right in our backyards. But “hands off.”

 

Female and male Eastern Towhees

By Bill Lawyer

Several years ago I wrote an article for this newspaper in which I described the ways that wildlife could help us deal with the threats of climate change. I focused in particular on the example of opossums. These fascinating and commonplace animals can indeed teach us many lessons.

Not by communicating directly with us, of course, but in the way they live their lives.

By Bill Lawyer

Spring is still weeks away, but I’m already thinking about daffodils, for which I’ve long had an affinity.

Perhaps it’s because they are often in full bloom around the time of my birthday, in early April. Especially attractive are the ones in the “Halsted Hill” neighborhood, including the grassy area outside the Rye Town Park wall.

Daffodils are one of those plants you can enjoy on a purely emotional level without having to know anything about where they came from, how you care for them, etc.

Wordsworth’s famous poem about daffodils focuses on their immediate power as “ten thousand saw I at a glance.”

One of many landscape paintings by Vincent van Gogh is <Couple Walking In The Trees,> completed in June 1890 — just a month before he died. The couple in the painting is literally wading in what appears to be daffodils and other varieties of undergrowth (sous-bois) flowering plants.

A double-square canvas — 20 by 40 inches — <Couple Walking> is the earthly version of van Gogh’s more famous <The Starry Night> swirling sky scene painted the year before. It speaks for itself. Enjoy it, if you happen to find yourself at Museu de Arte de São Paulo in Brazil.

Another reason for just focusing on the beauty of these spring sensations is that when you try to learn more about them, suddenly everything becomes somewhat speculative. For people who want cold hard facts, this can be frustrating. Take their name, for example. Some people distinguish between narcissus and daffodils, but according to botanists, each name refers to the same plant.

Ironically, even van Gogh’s painting suffers from confusion over the name of the colorful and vibrant woodland scene. Other titles, according to The Cincinnati Museum, include <Couple Walking Between Rows of Trees,> In the Woods>, and <Undergrowth with Two Figures>. And, there is uncertainty as to when the painting was completed — some sources say it was 1899, others1890.

In order to make it easier for people who admire daffodils, let’s look at how botanists have sorted them by their many variations. Starting from the general to the specific, we learn that narcissus/daffodil plants are in the Amaryllis family. This family has a vast number of species, divided into 75 genera. It would take weeks to try to understand the various attributes that have been used to come up with these classifications. Amaryllis, which comes from Greek mythology, means “to sparkle.” That’s all I need to know.

While daffodils are beautiful to look at, they are, in many cases, deadly poisonous. Despite that, people have used them in ways similar to how toxic plants are used to treat cancer and other severe ailments.

Narcissus, daffodil, and jonquils (a popular variety of daffodils) have been “domesticated” over the course of time from early civilization up to the present day. Plant cultivars have been developed with a wide range of sizes, colors, and climate conditions. They make great plants for teaching students how they grow and what their environmental requirements are. Plus, they have adapted well to a wide range of these conditions.

The sale of daffodil plants or cut flowers is a major source of income in countries such as the Netherlands. And, to a lesser extent, Great Britain.

The plants consist of bulbs that produce stalks, leaves, and flowers. When the flowers are pollinated, they produce seeds, which, if conditions are optimal, go to the ground and produce new bulbs.

Daffodils will continue blooming and spreading in the wild for many years, as long as the soil is not overly compacted or heavily disturbed.

The daffodils along Forest Avenue by Rye Town Park have withstood many years of “benign neglect”. They were planted by members of Friends of Rye Town Park. The Park staff just has to wait about a month after they bloom to cut back the leaves, to insure that nutrients are passed back to the bulbs.

And that’s the way the daffodils grow, right in our backyard. Get out and take a look soon.

Caption

A host of golden daffodils along the wall at Rye Town Park

By Bill Lawyer

My neighborhood, which I call “Halsted Hill,” has a large number of properties that include rock retaining walls and natural outcroppings. They provide delineation of different parts of the yard, as well as texture in their own right.

For those of us whose properties are along the slope of Halsted Hill, we have little choice but to divide it into terraces to provide level areas in back and front yards.

While the rocky terraces provide texture, the rocks themselves are the bare canvasses on which nature can create colorful, albeit somewhat abstract expressionistic, works of art.

We’re not talking about those chalk drawings your kids like to create in your driveway. We’re talking about the twin natural mixed media known as lichen and moss. One gardener refers to them as enhancing the walls with a “weathered, rustic appearance.”

While you have likely these two are, or how they got to where they are. Moss is a plant that does not produce flowers. Lichen, on the other hand, is not even a plant!

Lichens may superficially look like mosses, and have common names that include the word moss (e.g., “reindeer moss” or “iceland moss”), but they are not related to mosses, according to Irwin Brodo and Sylvia Sharnoff, co-authors of “Lichens of North America.”

Lichens are actually two or more organisms living together in what ecologists call a mutualistic relationship. They consist of an algae and a fungus, and in some cases even types of bacteria.

Most of the lichens that can be found in the rocks in Rye get their gray or green (or verdigris) from the color of the rocks themselves. Verdigris is the common name for the natural patina formed when copper, brass, or bronze in the rock is weathered and exposed to salt air or seawater over a period of time.

In fact, while the saltiness of seawater in Rye can cause serious damage to trees, it helps with nature’s artistic endeavor in coloring the rocks. A man-made version of this can be seen in the Statue of Liberty.

But along with verdigris around Rye, two other colors are commonly being produced in our rocky walls and outcropping — yellow and orange. Perhaps we don’t always notice these, as the brightness of the colors vary, depending on climate conditions and character of the rocks.

Wet weather enhances the brightness of the colors. According to research done at Michigan State University, photosynthetic chemicals — such as usnic acid — are responsible for red, orange, yellow, and brown.

Turning now to how mosses can provide color and texture to the landscape, we are immediately confronted by the fact that they are not plants, and they don’t use a vascular system to transport moisture and nutrients. So they don’t grow the same way as grasses, flowers, shrubs, and trees.

Perhaps the most commonly known moss in use is sphagnum moss — peat. Like most mosses, peat can absorb up to 20 times its own weight in water. This provides a great medium for keeping new plants moist.

To get ideas of how to use moss artistically in a garden, visit one of the region’s famed botanical gardens, New York and Brooklyn. A little further afield, in Raleigh, North Carolina, is the Moss and Stone Garden, which is dedicated to the promotion and cultivation of moss as a beneficial and appreciated component in the landscape. In their unique gardens and containers, moss rules supreme.

As plants that like shade, mosses can bring a softness and tranquility to public and private landscapes.

A few years back, The New York Times published an article about a Bucks County man who changed his entire lawn into a moss garden. And since then, he no longer has had to water, fertilize, or mow his yard.

As you start thinking about what to plant in the months ahead, why not give the dynamic duo of moss and algae a try, right in your own backyard.

 

 

Stonewall along Rye Beach Avenue

A moss garden created by the Moss and Stone garden company

By Bill Lawyer 

 

There’s a small but hardy crew of short-cutters, strollers, joggers, and dog walkers that include the path between the Purdy Cemetery and the Oakland Avenue Bridge in their daily routine. Over the past week, they have been treated to quite a show if they travel that way around 4:30 in the afternoon.

 

It wasn’t that long ago that it was dark by that time. But as the days have been getting longer, people can still see what’s going on. And what a sight it has been to see. Up in the trees lining the path two Great Horned Owls have been perched about 25 feet or more high — close enough to get a fairly detailed view. 

 

For the most part, they are very stationary, sometimes perched on the same branch; other times they are on nearby branches.

 

On one occasion, one of the owls suddenly flew out of the woods, across the baseball field, and then into the woods to the north.

 

Great Horned Owls are probably one of the most studied species of owl in the country. That’s no doubt, in part at least, because they are much larger than most species of owl. They range from 18 to 24 inches long, with the females being slightly longer than the males. They weigh from 2 to 5 pounds. “Our” owls were at the larger end of this range.  

 

Over the years I have heard the hooting of Great Horned Owls, particularly in the winter months, when the nights are longer and the mating season has begun — from December through February. Great Horned Owls are the true epitome of a nocturnal animal. Their eyes are well adapted for receiving any available light and they have an enhanced ability to hear even the softest sounds of a potential prey.

 

The first time I saw the two owls, it wasn’t because I noticed them on my own. A crow had been cawing loudly, so I looked up to see what was going on. And there they were.  

 

At first it looked like two clumps of leaves wedged between the branch and trunk of the tree — it reminded me of the nests that squirrels make, known as drays.

 

But then one of the clumps moved.  

 

The owl’s feathers are truly camouflaged, so that while they are sitting still it’s almost impossible to see them as dusk approaches. As I watched, the crow seemed to give up and flew away.  

 

The next afternoon I encouraged my granddaughter to come with me, as I said she would see a fun surprise. Of course, I wasn’t sure they’d still be there, but I thought it was worth a try. And when we got there, success!  

 

Nearly everyone on the planet seems to know about the owl in the Harry Potter stories, but I have to admit that I’ve never read the books or watched the movies. But in my mind, finding two large owls with feathers that look like horns was as exciting as any fictional, magic owls.  

 

And the other fascinating thing we were able to see was the owls’ ability to pivot their heads 270 degrees, so that they can really pick up sounds coming from nearly all directions.  

 

While “our” owls seem beautiful and almost docile, when they get into their hunting mode it’s an entirely different story. They perch high in a tree on a dark night, and when they spot or hear their prey they dive straight down. Their talons give them the ability to catch and crush their prey before the rats, voles, and other critters know what hit them.   

 

Unfortunately, there was no way I could get a good photo of our owls at rest or in the air. So if you want to see what the excitement is all about, you’ll have to go to the path and see for yourself.

 

 

 

Photo of Great Horned Owl at the Marshlands Conservancy courtesy of William J. Hall Wildlife Photography