Monday, April 29, 2013

This Blog is moving to a new URL

Living Lighter on the Land will no longer be housed here at this web address.  The new blog will be located on the official website of the Pound Ridge Land Conservancy, where you can continue to read about off-grid living, organic gardening, habitat management, natural history, conservation and all tenants of Living Lighter on the Land.  Here is the direct link to the blog's new location.     

Please update your bookmarks to correspond with this transition.  There will be no more post at this address.  Thanks and happy reading.  

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Biodiversity and disease risk

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

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

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

First, a bit of background:

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

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

This cartoon shows the differences between two disease reservoirs

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

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

A white footed mouse with an ear full of ticks

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

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

As diversity declines, disease risk goes up.   

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Time to cut Japanese barberry

Its official, spring has arrived: the pheobes are back, I heard an american robin singing, the leaves of the trout lily have emerged and I saw a red maple in bloom.  In the coming weeks the forest will green out and it will start with the Japanese barberry.  This shrub (originally from Japan and eastern Asia) is one of the first plants to push forth its leaves.  For someone suffering from the winter blues the early-spring color of Japanese barberry can be quite welcoming but unfortunately there is a downside to its leaves.  
It turns out that Japanese barberry is able to create a microclimate that is favorable to the black footed tick, the insect that transmits Lyme disease through its bite.  Under the dense shrub, humidity stays high enough to allow for active ticks that would otherwise have to burrow into the moist soil to escape desiccation.  This blog post encapsulates the recent findings of UCONN professors who say that managing Japanese barberry will reduce Lyme disease risk.  This blog post presents additional findings.      

Japanese barberry leafs out while most of the forest remains dormant 

I have spent the last few weekends removing Japanese barberry from the Armstrong Preserve.  Besides harboring disease-carrying insects, this plant is well known for being an invasive plant capable of lowering plant biodiversity and altering soil characteristics.  To read more about the plant's invasive behavior read here.  Most of the literature offers a variety of options for barberry removal, from burning to pulling.  On the Armstrong Preserve I either remove the entire plant (roots and all) or simply cut the plant at its base.  Cutting at the base leaves the roots, from which new shoots will grow.  With this approach subsequent cutting is necessary to finally kill the plant.  Cutting Japanese barberry at its base has some advantages over pulling the entire plant, namely causing less disturbance to the soil.  Around our vernal pool I decided to cut Japanese barberry instead of pulling it up because I wanted to reduce the amount of soil that ran into the water.  Likewise, in areas of well established Japanese stiltgrass, disturbing the soil to remove Japanese barberry might create an ideal seed bed for stiltgrass.

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

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

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

Monday, March 25, 2013

Hear them peep

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

A male wood frog floating in a vernal pool, March 23, 2013

In a pool behind the Bedford Audubon Society's HQ I found THOUSANDS (!!!) of wood frogs (Rana sylvaticus) doing what wood frogs do at this time of year: float, quack and mate. These 2 inch amphibians live most of their lives on land but lay their eggs in water and rely on the safety of fish-free vernal pools to do so.  During the first warm and wet days of spring wood frogs congregate in impressive numbers in the shallows of a vernal pool and get directly to business.  Below is a picture of wood frogs mating.  The larger, pinkish female is below the smaller and browner male.  Both sexes contain a black mask over their eye, which helps in identification.         

Female (larger, underneath) and male (smaller, above) wood frogs mating.

Wood frogs have attained a good bit of fame due to their amazing overwintering strategy, which is described in the following videos.       

Another frog found in vernal pools is the spring peeper, (pseudacris crucifer) whose very loud 'PEEP', 'PEEP', 'PEEP' can be heard echoing from wetlands at great distances.  You have probably heard this little frogs before, but maybe you haven't seen one in action (they are certainly impressive).  For a great look at the peeper in action, check out this video (I am sorry about the advertisement before this video - believe me, its worth it) 

Back at the Armstrong Preserve's vernal pool, I found something that may rival the freezing frogs:  fairy shrimp.  These 1/2 inch - 1 inch long crustaceans in the Eubranchipus genus swim near the water's surface and take cover as shadow's pass by.  The fairy in the picture below is carrying an egg sack on her back, which will be deposited in the pool where it will sit for a year before hatching.   
A female fairy shrimp carrying an egg sack 

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

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

Monday, March 18, 2013

Microgreens in March

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

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

Day 5.  A cute little sunflower shoot.  

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

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

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

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

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

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