Solarize Indiana deadline quickly approaching

From WNDU:

The economics of installing a solar system in Indiana will change substantially at the end of this year.

Anyone looking to beat that deadline will have plenty of help from a new group of community volunteers called Solarize South Bend.

If you are a homeowner or business owner in St. Joseph, Elkhart, Kosciusko, or Marshall counties, you may be able to get in on this solar group-buy. In addition to a more affordable and easier purchase process, you can lock in 30 years of favorable utility connection terms (net metering)… but only if you make a commitment by Sep. 30.

See here for the complete details >> http://www.solarizeni.org/southbend.html

We are looking into solar energy solutions for The Center At Donaldson as well. Nothing yet to report… but we’re on the way!

Why is biodiversity so important? The case of the Tortrix, Part 1

As the on-call ecologist at The Center at Donaldson, I get pulled aside to see a lot of things. Dead birds, turtle eggs, strange insects, and albino squirrels, for example. Sometimes there is an unsolvable mystery. Other times, important clues that fill in the gaps to working hypotheses and ponderings.

“Adam, have you seen the tree in front of Lindenwood?”

On May 26th, I responded to another call and found that our beautiful American Plum tree had been taken over:

Think of your friend who is most grossed out by bugs, all things creeping and crawling. Imagine their worst nightmare. This would probably be it.


How about a close up?

I was naturally intrigued, so I stood underneath the tree and looked closely. Strings of worms several feet long were rappelling down off the bare branches on their own slime-ropes. There were so many that I could actually hear them chewing on the leaves. As several of the ropes started dropping around me, I figured it best to move out from under the tree. (I like insects a lot, but even I don’t want them crawling all over my scalp).

Ignore my comment about “bag worms,” which they were not… it was just the only vocabulary I had at the time.

Given that the tree was already 99% defoliated (and it was 4 pm on a Friday) there was really nothing to be done, other than try to ID the worm at hand.

I failed to grab and preserve a specimen (my first mistake!) but I posted the above photos and notes to a Facebook group dedicated to Insect Identification. These types of groups are a bit of a mixed bag. There are plenty of “know-it-alls” who are pretty misinformed, but I also personally know taxonomic experts who frequent these sites (often obsessively) and offer great scientific insight and identification. The internet has allowed “citizen scientists” to play an increasing role in making observations about the natural world, as well as allowing scientists to interact with a broader audience. We just have to be mindful about quality.

Someone in the group suggested that it was probably a Tortrid or Tortrix moth (from the insect family Tortricinae). They are commonly referred to as leafrollers. They further suggested it was of the Sparganothis genus.

Morphological differences between insect species can be so subtle that even experts cannot make a definitive identification of some without a microscope, sometimes not even without dissection. Unless it’s a scientific study or an intervention is planned, it is often enough to call something a “leafroller” and be done with it.

But… that won’t stop us from an educated guess!

I clicked through the Sparganothis species list on Wikipedia, looking for those who had populations in the Midwestern. From the Wikipedia citations I was directed to the Tortrix food plant database, which detailed many published observations on Tortrix moths. I wanted to see which species might be found of American plum.

There was an observation of Sparganothis directana feeding on a wild cherry tree (Prunus virginiana),  which is a close relative of American plum (P. americana). There were also are a few observations of other Sparganothis species feeding on Prunus species (S. reticulantana, S. directana, S. umbrana, and S. diluticostana). The first two species’ range includes Indiana. But that would be as close as I could get without professional help.

The moth “worms” that we saw were larva. They would then go on to the cocoon stage. I didn’t notice any cocoons in the tree, but then again, I didn’t look closely. Cocoons can also be made under the leaves, or even underground. The cocoon hatches and then moths emerge, fly around, mate, and die or get eaten. A few moth species overwinter as adults in the leaf litter. I don’t know about Tortrix, but some moth species (like butterflies) even migrate!

But back to our “outbreak.” We had one tree that was “taken over.” It was a “complete plague.” I was asked what I could do to fix this “problem.”

There is a lot of human culture hidden behind the language that we use.

As an agricultural species dependent on green growing plants, we humans have developed an inherently negative reaction to insects, which feed largely on green growing plants. It’s not surprising that we see any insect eating any plant (even if not a food crop necessary for our survival) as a “problem.”

Leaf roller moths, and many other insects, can be serious pests on agricultural crops. In order to provide food for ourselves, we need to think carefully about how and when to manage pest populations on our food crops. The tools used may be mechanical, biological, or chemical.

The new imperative of the Anthropocene is to look harder and longer at the web of connections around us, to consider the many ripple effects of our decisions.

Below is a chart detailing the phenology (seasonal timing) of a Tortrix moth that was observed in an outbreak in Michigan in the 1960’s (Wilson, 1972). I can’t be sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if our Tortrix had a roughly similar life history. Wilson’s publication is pretty short and it’s an interesting read.This species covered hundreds of thousands of acres, primarily targeting red oaks. The initial boom started in 1965 and lasted until a population collapse in 1970. In some areas, “considerable dieback and tree mortality occurred.” A similar outbreak occurred in the region from 1956-1958.

I found these note interesting (emphasis mine):

Mature larvae exhibit typical torticid behavior when disturbed. They retreat rapidly in reverse and drop down on their silk threads. Those dropping over water attract trout and other fish. Some fishermen who noticed the activity of this “greeny-worm”, as they called them, tied trout flies to imitate them during the outbreak…

In urban areas such as in and  near the town of Mio, which relies heavily on tourism, the insect denuded and killed many of the predominant shade trees. Dead oaks along roadsides were aesthetically unpleasing to residents and tourists alike.”

Even in scientific journals, the issue of aesthetics cannot be avoided!

It is beyond the scope of the paper, but the many ripple effects of these outbreaks were not measured. Sun-loving, savanna plant species in these forests probably flourished after this outbreak, produced lots of pollen and nectar, and laid down seeds in the soil to wait for the next outbreak. Oaks temporarily on the decline left room for beech, maple, and pine trees to grow. Innumerable insect species flourished in the dead wood of the trees, as well as fungi to slowly decompose the trees and recycle their nutrients back into the biosphere. Woodcock, wood peckers, and other birds that relied on open habitat and dead trees probably flocked to the region and had several years of good reproduction, feasting on the insect buffet.

To the natural world, an outbreak at this scale wasn’t “bad,” it was just different. This difference in habitat availability at a regional scale lead to a more biodiverse web of life. Rather than a single blanket of mature oak trees, there was a patchwork buffet of many species and stages of growth, each variation attracting a different cast of characters.

Our own moth worm outbreak is a naturally occurring phenomenon, just like the huge population booms and busts of many insect species. So was it a “problem” to be “solved?”

Stay tuned for Part 2!

What does the fox say?

Thanks to a grant from Arrowhead County RC&D, Earthworks was able to install high-quality wildlife cameras at The Center at Donaldson, whose campus includes a 37 acre kettle lake, prairie restorations, pastures, forests, and landscaped areas. Wildlife is abundant, and includes bald eagles, osprey, sandhill cranes, bobolinks, deer, red foxes, monarch butterflies, several turtle species, and red-headed woodpeckers, to name only a few. We have at least 3 of the Chicago Wilderness’ 12 Priority Species, and possibly more.

This year, each week-long Earthwork’s day camp (kids ages 6-10) follows a theme of either Soil, Water, or Air. Integral to each of these systems is wildlife. As rural areas depopulate and children spend more time indoors, they are increasingly unfamiliar with the cast of characters that we share space with. Often, they know more about elephants, lions, and giraffes than about their own native foxes, turtles, and birds.

We first take the kids into the woods and show them the cameras, let them wave and leave funny faces. Then we teach them about animals signs, habitat, and viewing the landscape through their eyes. At the end of the week, we retrieve the storage cards and let them see who is out there!

I knew from walking the woods that a den was located not far outside our camp building. I wasn’t sure which animal it belonged to, but given that we had reports of a new fox family nearby, I figured that was it.

We set up the camera in front of the den and let it run for a week. One of the cameras even has an integrated solar panel and internal battery, with AA batteries providing back-ups (so far, the solar panel appears to be providing all the power necessary). It would take audio and video both day and night, triggered by motion sensors.

Boxing foxes!

Foxes there indeed were! What a treat to see.

We left the cameras rolling…


Did I mention that these cameras take videos too? (Note: You might not see videos if you’re reading this inside your e-mail… you’ll have to click the blog post and open in a web browser)

And at night!

We expected foxes. And, of course, deer. But we were pleasantly surprised to find other critters as well.

This groundhog seemed a bit wary. Maybe he originally dug the burrow, or was scoping out a possible conquest, or perhaps just admiring the architecture and front lawn.

We upload these photos and videos to our social media accounts to build  excitement about making the wildlife around us more visible to the campers.

Our cameras do capture audio, but aside from some birdsong, we haven’t heard much of anything yet. We still don’t know what the fox says! We’ll keep listening.

Welcome to Ecological Relationships!

This blog will highlight the ecological work at The Center at Donaldson (TCAD), a village of ministries sponsored by The Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ (PHJC) in rural northern Indiana. The Poor Handmaids are a community of women religious in the Catholic tradition, originally established in Germany in 1851. PHJC now has ministries of compassion throughout the world, driven by their core values.

In 2016, after a long history of work around sustainability, ecology, and earth education, the PHJC community created a full-time position to coordinate these efforts. I (Adam) came to TCAD as Director of Ecological Relationships. I previously held positions with non-profits in Indiana and Bolivia, as well as working as a consulting botanist in the private sector.

Our burn crew after burning off leaf litter in a small oak savanna, March 2017.

I work with a diverse, multi-disciplinary team. We explore our “ecological relationships” by deepening our commitment to sustainability, using science to educate and inquire, and being open to what the Spirit might be saying in the day-to-day rhythms of Creation.
In this blog, we’ll get (literally) into the weeds, down to the smallest wildflower. We are also concerned with our broader social-political relationship, and may examine how social movements and legislation affect our common home. Scaling up, we’ll try to consider the cosmic scale of our ecological relationships as well.

Besides being pleasing to the eye, flowers and their pollinators play an important ecological role in our landscape. This swallowtail was found nectaring on an Ironweed in our cattle pasture in 2016.

I hope to update weekly… and at a minimum of 3 times each month. Some posts will be heavily footnoted and referenced, others will be more casual observations.

To get us started, scroll down to see some writings from the last year, or click below:
*Don’t farm naked! (on cover crops)

*You sow what you reap (on prairie restoration)

*Do you “C” what I “C?” (on plant monitoring)

Please share, comment, critique, collaborate, and instigate… that’s why we’re here!

Adam Thada, Director of Ecological Relationships

Don’t farm naked!

(A version of this article appeared in the Nov. 2016 edition of Ripples, an internal newsletter of The Center at Donaldson)

What do you call the stuff underneath your feet? We often call it “dirt,” usually a negative term. We may dig up “dirt” on other people. Our clothes get “dirty.” But it’s not an accurate term. What we really mean is soil.

Soil is not some dead brown crust. It’s alive, and without it, we wouldn’t be. It’s more like a raucous party, or a battlefield, or a city: A single pinch of soil contains millions of bacteria representing thousands of species, not to mention all the nematodes, springtails, rotifers, mites, and tardigrades. (be thankful your parents didn’t give its name or looks!). These are all interacting with, chomping on, and moving around various nutrients, minerals, fungi, and roots of living plants. Soil also stores water, anchors plants, and changes the Earth’s atmosphere.

But despite having a lot to show off, soil is shy. It “wants” to stay covered up and keep its beauty under a clock of vegetation. As an ecological default, natural systems trend toward perennials, plants which persist in the soil for years at a time.

Our challenge is that our major agricultural crops are annuals, which we plant into a living community primed for perennial associations. We plant seeds in May, keep the weeds down, then harvest everything in October. But from November to April, the soil surface bare. The tiny species that keep the soil healthy begin to starve for lack of solar-powered plant roots injecting food into the system. Nutrients begin to leech out of the soil and into waterways. We’re farming naked!

Enter cover crops, which are simply annual plants that can share soil space with our main agricultural crops. Planted in late summer or fall, they thrive in the cool wet months when corn or soybeans cannot grow. Some species even withstand frost and persist into the spring. In the spring, any remaining cover crops are then terminated (killed by tillage or herbicide) to allow space for planting of the main crop.

Research has shown several benefits of certain cover crop rotations: reduced compaction, erosion, and fertilizer inputs; increased soil moisture and soil carbon; and feeding the microcommunities that keep soil alive. Aesthetically, a green, textured field is a great impro­vement over an endless blanket of brown. Some flowering cover crops can even benefit pollinators. Indiana has seen a 500% increase in cover crop usage since 2011, now covering one million acres, about 10% of our corn and soy fields.

Oct. 2017. Our first trial of cereal rye as a cover crop. Eventually attaining a height of around 4 feet, this was plowed into the soil in May of 2017.

This fall, we are planting cereal rye as a cover crop in a field just east of the farm, on 9C road. This planting is made possible with funding from Clean Water Indiana, provided through the Marshall County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Since the soil feels a little shy about its glory, we’ll try keep it covered with living plants. If you see our hard-working farmers, be sure to thank them for not farming naked!

You sow what you reap

(A version of this article appeared in the Sep. 2016 edition of Ripples, an internal newsletter of The Center at Donaldson)

The eastern tallgrass prairie was a grass-based and fire-driven community extending from northwest Indiana hundreds of miles to the west. Essentially all of it – millions of acres – was destroyed by the plow. If this tapestry were a 1,000 piece puzzle, European settlers removed 999 pieces during westward expansion.

Volunteers harvesting seeds from Joe Pye Weed, a native wildflower that is a favorite of many pollinators.

During the middle of the 20th century, a few lone voices wondered if it weren’t possible to stitch together the remaining fragments again. The prairie restoration movement was born. But where to start?

There were no commercial nurseries with these kinds of plants. prairie enthusiasts turned towards forgotten corners of cemeteries and narrow strips along railroads. Here a few Native grasses and Wildflowers hung on with the strength of perennial roots running up to 10 feet below ground. Their above ground greenery grew back every summer and tolerates (to varying degrees) the occasional mowing or hungry cow. Their seeds formed the hope of the landscape artists.

Bags of native prairie seeds ready for mixing.

It is a comforting myth to hope that if humans just “let it go back to nature,” lost ecosystems of immense complexity would spring forth fully formed. But the prairie remnants are now too few and scattered, and the newly-arrived Asian and European weeds too prolific. The science seems to indicate that restoration for biodiversity requires careful and intentional work by humans.

Every week as I drive and bike through Marshall County, I am amazed to find new remnant prairie species in bloom that called this continent home for thousands of years. Pink and white pasture thistles, 10 foot tall yellow Prairie Dock, even prickly pear cactus in a sandy ditch! I am mapping each of these plants with my phone so that I can return later to harvest seed. From these stores, we can turn weedy fields and bare ground into a diverse network of these treasures, reminiscent of the landscape just a couple centuries ago.

Seeds from Bloodroot, a native spring wildflower that usually indicates high-quality woodlands, though I found some plants still hanging on in a rural roadside without tree cover.

 

“The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” (Matt 9:37). We are already starting to collect, dry, and clean seed for plantings next year. Please reach out to me if you’d like to join the prairie party!

Do you “C” what I “C?”

(A version of this article appeared in the Aug. 2016 edition of Ripples, an internal newsletter of The Center at Donaldson)

When you look out at a wetland in the summer, you’ll see a flush of green, hopefully colored with dashes of yellow, blue, pink, or white. But how can you tell if a natural area is “healthy?” What are indicating that it might be “sick” or “degraded”? While ecological health cannot ever be boiled down to a single number, there are several tools that ecologists use to rate the health of a natural community. The presence or abundance of certain plants or animals can even give us a clue as to the site’s history.

Most would agree this forested wetland in Manistee Nat’l Forest (MI) is beautiful, and certainly green and growing… but it is performing the ecological functions we expect?

 

 

This is why Sr. Mary Baird and I were excited to come across a dainty, narrow-leaved, 5-petaled yellow flower as we were exploring a wetland on PHJC land. I could tell that it was a loosestrife of some sort, so I took some photos and notes so that I could identify the plant back with the resources back in my office. I then e-mailed Sr. Mary excitedly, “It’s a C 10! Prairie Loosestrife, Lysimachia quadriflora.”

Tiny plant, big indicator.

 

 

A C-what? I was referring to a numbered scale, from 0 – 10, called the Coefficient of Conservatism. Each plant has been assigned a number, a “C-value,” by a panel of botanical experts. These values represent the species’ tendency to represent a specific, undisturbed natural community characteristic of the land before the European settlement. (See the foundational paper for Indiana C-values here).

Dandelions, for example, have a C-value of 0 and are found pretty much anywhere soil is disturbed by foot traffic or mowers. Swamp milkweed has a C-value of 6, and are as easily at home in a roadside ditch as a high-quality wetland. Prairie loosestrife tops out the scale at 10. It is “conservative” and doesn’t like change and disruption. Finding a single diminutive plant indicated to us that the wetland we were searching may have other treasures – complex networks of soil, microbes, insects, and other “conservative” plants. Of the 88 plant species we identified, four had C-vales of 8-10.

The Prairie Loosestrife also indicated that this former cattle pasture might have contained a fen, which is a unique wetland type that is fed year-round by groundwater through calcium-rich soils. While rebuilding a rain-fed marsh is fairly straightforward, this particular network of underground hydrology is so complex that scientists have been unable to reconstruct these communities of fen plants, soils, and microorganisms. As a fellow ecologist once told me, “Humans don’t create fens. Ice ages create fens.”

We will be working over the coming years to reduce the weedy, invasive plants that took over much of this wetland when it was used as a cattle pasture. We are hoping that dormant seeds of even more unique fen plants will spring forth as new opportunity is given for growth. Who knows what you and I will “C” next?!